Mako Vunipola set to make his first England start
Saracens prop Mako Vunipola will make his first England start against Italy tomorrow as one of five changes made by head coach Stuart Lancaster from the 23-13 victory over France.
Former Bristol front rower Vunipola, who won his first seven Test caps as a high-impact replacement, replaces Joe Marler at loosehead with Tom Youngs taking over at hooker from Dylan Hartley.
Wasps flanker James Haskell returns on the blindside in place of Courtney Lawes and England go into the game with a new half-back combination.
Toby Flood takes over at fly-half from Owen Farrell, who is recovering from a strained thigh muscle suffered against France, and Danny Care gets his chance at scrum-half in place of Ben Youngs.
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With Farrell not being risked, Gloucester fly-half Freddie Burns is on the bench and eyeing a second cap, having made a successful debut off the bench in December’s triumph against New Zealand.
Joining Burns among the replacements is Tom Croft, the Leicester flanker, who returns to the England fold 11 months after a broken neck almost left him paralysed. Croft made his comeback for Leicester on January 4.
After three consecutive victories, Lancaster always intended to “freshen up” the side as England target a victory over Italy that will tee up a shot at the Grand Slam.
Lancaster said: “We were very happy with the way we finished the France game. The impact the replacements made shows that we have competition for places across the board and we have had to make some tight calls.
“Italy will be highly motivated for this game and we will have to perform for the full 80 minutes. I am sure those starting will seize their chance and the bench will also have a significant part to play as the game goes on.
“The support at Twickenham for the Scotland and France games was superb and I am sure the atmosphere will be fantastic again for our final home match of the championship.”
Lancaster had floated the idea of moving Manu Tuilagi to the wing and giving Billy Twelvetrees another start at inside centre but has kept faith with Chris Ashton.
England’s points difference is currently 17 better than nearest rivals Wales, who they face in the final round of the championship in Cardiff next Saturday.
Vunipola and Tom Youngs both made strong impressions off the bench against France, and they have been rewarded.
“Mako gets his first start and everyone is delighted with that. He has thoroughly deserved his chance and we are looking forward to seeing how he goes,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster is planning for the Italy and Wales games as one project but the players are focusing on extending their unbeaten record against Italy.
“I don’t look at the bookie’s odds because they are irrelevant. What is relevant is what mindset you turn up in,” Lancaster said. “We’re in a good place going into the game. Those players who are not involved are still 100 per cent behind the team. That is the making of a good team.”
Although Italy are rank outsiders, Lancaster will not write them off particularly following the return from suspension of captain Sergio Parisse. “We know the improvement they have made and the quality they have,” Lancaster said.
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), T Wood (Northampton). Reps: D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), J Marler (Harlequins), C Lawes (Northampton), T Croft (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester), F Burns (Gloucester), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester).