England aim to ‘break Italy’s spirits’ in Six Nations title dash

• Andy Farrell reckons England have good chance of title
• France 'are at their best with backs against the wall'

The bookmakers have Ireland down as narrow 5-6 favourites to be crowned as the 2014 Six Nations champions but not everyone shares that popular view. Andy Farrell, England's backs coach, still believes his side have "a good chance of winning the title" and reckons those awaiting a trophy presentation in Paris are sitting in the wrong European capital.

Regardless of what England do against Italy, - despite perfect high-scoring conditions a 50-point margin of victory would be some achievement - Farrell senses France could yet do their cross-Channel neighbours a favour by beating the Irish and is suitably encouraged by the fractious noises emerging from the home camp this week. "The French are at their best when their backs are against the wall," said the former Great Britain rugby league captain.

"A few questions have been asked of the French team and it's all come to a bit of a head with people walking out of press conference because they're being challenged. When you get the French in that type of situation they can be very dangerous."

Wishful thinking is not normally Farrell's speciality but he has plenty of history on his side. As happened at the last World Cup, a little Gallic discord can yield startling results, particularly with Louis Picamoles back in the home starting XV. All England can do is concentrate on their half of the deal by running the Italians around at a sun-soaked Stadio Olimpico and finishing their campaign with a crowd-pleasing flourish.

It is a sign of their winter's progress that they still feel they can answer most questions even without three front-line props in Dan Cole, Alex Corbisero and Joe Marler. Late on their front-row is set to contain Henry Thomas and Matt Mullan but, increasingly, Graham Rowntree's forwards are setting an early pace that few opposing packs can match.

The bench presence of Manu Tuilagi also suggests a sprint finish entirely lacking in Cardiff a year ago. Despite the late withdrawal of Marler, who has remained at home to attend the birth of his first child, the management can sense a growing collective belief. "We're becoming a hard team to work out and we can now mix it up in a number of ways which is dangerous going forward," said Farrell. "Physically the players are in as good a place as they've ever been. We're a much better side for many reasons."

England, accordingly, will aim to take it to Italy from the outset and, in Farrell's words, "break their spirits first and foremost". Jonny May and Jack Nowell will fancy registering their first tries for England and Manu Tuilagi, apparently the quickest man in the squad over 10 metres, will thunder on like an exported Pamplona bull. There are ripe oranges visible in the trees along the Via Veneto and low-hanging fruit is precisely what the visitors need points-wise.

Before they don their berets and start cheering the French, England will hope to top the 40-point mark. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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