Henry Arundell and Anthony Watson in line for England return against Italy
Henry Arundell and Anthony Watson could join forces in England’s back three against Italy, as Steve Borthwick ponders an injection of outright pace for his second match in charge.
The move may mean that one of those speedsters is deployed at full-back, at least for part of the game, with indications that Freddie Steward, who has been on the field for every minute of England’s last 18 Test matches, is possibly in line to be rotated to the bench or rested.
Jack Willis, meanwhile, is set for a return to the squad and would appear to be set to start at openside flanker as a direct replacement for Ben Curry. Willis did not appear against Scotland because commitments for Toulouse, whom he joined following the demise of Wasps, compromised his preparations for the Calcutta Cup. Having faced Bayonne in the Top 14, he has returned to the England squad.
Wearing the number seven against Italy would give Willis a first Test start since his debut in a victory over Georgia in 2021, and would bring the 26-year-old back to the scene of a serious knee injury two years ago at Twickenham.
Lewis Ludlam was the only player to have been involved against Scotland not to join a team session at Pennyhill Park on Tuesday, with the Northampton Saints back-rower undertaking some light conditioning because of lingering soreness from the weekend.
All other members of the 36-man squad split into teams and trained. Willis and Nick Isiekwe, a replacement in the 29-23 loss to Scotland, were part of a team that also included most of the starters from Saturday, such Owen Farrell, Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje and Alex Dombrandt, as well as Arundell, Watson and Henry Slade.
Joe Marchant, conversely, was part of a separate side featuring a number of replacements from Saturday such as Ollie Lawrence, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola. The 22-year-old Steward, who has enjoyed a formidable rise since making his senior debut for England in July 2021, joined that team.
Borthwick has vowed to treat each match on its individual merits, and will not treat Italy lightly given their recent progress. The Azzurri have expanded their attacking game under Kieran Crowley over the past year and followed their dramatic win over Wales with an impressive thrashing of Samoa and a further defeat of Australia in November.
Ange Capuozzo, Italy’s own intrepid full-back, has personified those exciting improvements, but they also kicked more than any other side in the 2022 Six Nations and demonstrated their forward muscle against France on Sunday.
England will, however, have to formulate contingency plans at full-back ahead of the World Cup later this year. In Max Malins, Watson and Arundell, as well as Tommy Freeman, he has plenty of potential candidates to deputise for Steward. Indeed, both Malins and Watson have started at full-back for England previously.
Either Arundell or Watson, who appeared as a second-half replacement against Scotland to win a first England cap since 2021, could conceivably slot in at full-back with either or both of Malins and Ollie Hassell-Collins retaining their positions on the wings.
Alternatively, Borthwick may stick with Steward in between Watson and Arundell. During his time as Leicester Tigers head coach, Borthwick clearly valued versatility in the back three. He stationed Steward on the right wing for certain fixtures and brought him off the bench for a comeback win over Saracens last season. Either way, the experience of Watson, a teammate of Steward at Leicester who has been on two British and Irish Lions tours and has now represented England in 52 Tests, is useful.
Malins scored two tries in the loss to Scotland and impressed in a disjointed 33-0 victory over Italy in Rome a year ago. Though Arundell has only managed a single, half-hour cameo for London Irish since last October due to a foot injury that required surgery, and has only picked up three replacement appearances for England during the 2022 series against Australia, totalling around half an hour, he began the Premiership season in devastating form.
It is understood that the 20-year-old played a part in preparations to face Scotland and is fit to feature despite scant game-time at domestic level.