England have been warned to concentrate on beating Italy before they even start to contemplate a potential grand slam date with Wales next week. A big win at Twickenham could make it virtually impossible for England to be overhauled in this season's Six Nations championship race and the lock Geoff Parling is urging the team to focus all their efforts on beating the Azzurri.
With Stuart Lancaster due to unveil a reshuffled pack featuring starting places for Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs and James Haskell, the ever-present Parling wants England to display more set-piece precision than they showed against France. "You know Italy's forwards will be physical and will get stuck in," he said. "They're good at spoiling your ball and making life difficult, so we're in for another big test."
The lineout is among the areas where England are seeking improvement, having beaten Ireland and France despite a few technical hiccups. "We won the last two games largely down to character," Parling said. "There are little bits of detail we need to attend to if we are to be right up there. We want to be known as a pack who can take it to any team, a pack who are very, very difficult to play against."
England are also set to name a fresh set of half-backs, with Danny Care and Toby Flood replacing Ben Youngs and the injured Owen Farrell, with Tom Croft in line for a Test recall off the bench. If nothing else, reckons Parling, Croft will increase England's lineout options if and when he does feature. "Tom's seven feet tall [sic] and about 10 stone in terms of throwing him up in the air. I certainly enjoy playing with him as a lock. You can put him anywhere and he's comfortable. You wouldn't want to move him around too much because it would affect the other guys and their roles, but he'll pick things up very quickly. Playing with him at Leicester I know how quickly Tom adjusts to situations."
Italy, though, will have the inspirational Sergio Parisse back in their side and Parling, despite England's positive points difference of plus 36, is taking absolutely nothing for granted against a side that have never won at Twickenham. "We must not for one minute get ahead of ourselves. If we go into the Italy game on Sunday thinking about the Wales game, there are going to be some problems.
"When Leicester played Treviso in Italy we only just about scraped a win over there. We know what we'll face … they'll come here with nothing to lose, so we'll approach that game as we did the France game. The minute the whistle signals the end of the game, we'll turn our thoughts to Wales, not before."
England have not won a grand slam since 2003 but, at the very least, Parling reckons Lancaster's squad will be mentally strong enough to cope with the "very intense" few days awaiting them. "This mentality has been slowly building. I know we lost games on the South Africa tour last year, but we learned from every one. In the game we drew in Port Elizabeth at the end, when everybody expected us to lose again, we showed character and belief even when we were down to 14 men for 10 minutes. You will always be able to fix up little bits of detail, but you cannot fix character if you don't have it."
Italy, yet to register a victory in 18 previous meetings with England, are also due to finalise their starting XV on Friday before heading to London. On their last visit two years ago they lost 59-13, with the winger Chris Ashton scoring four of his side's eight tries.
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