Our experts pick their England 23s to face Italy

Steve Borthwick - Our experts pick their England 23s to face Italy

England head coach Steve Borthwick will name his 23-man matchday squad for his side’s Guinness Six Nations opener with Italy on Thursday, but who has impressed and should start in Rome?

Telegraph Sport’s rugby experts – Gavin Mairs, Daniel Schofield, Charlie Morgan, Ben Coles, Charles Richardson and Fiona Tomas – have made their picks.

Can Fraser Dingwall answer England’s inside centre problem? Can Ethan Roots transfer club form onto the international stage? Steve Borthwick wants his team to make an explosive start to the Six Nations but he is going to have to rely on some untried combinations to deliver against Italy. George Furbank has been in brilliant form for Northampton but Freddie Steward will be hard to dislodge. Fin Smith for me. His form for Northampton has earned him the right to start, and showed Test match instincts in the victory over Munster. Expect Immanuel Feyi-Waboso to come off the bench to be capped to ward off Scotland and Wales respectively.

To balance my contrasting desires to reward as many in-form players versus the need for a semblance of continuity, I have borrowed Northampton’s wonderful midfield combination of Alex Mitchell, Fin Smith and Fraser Dingwall with the safety net of Henry Slade outside them. Every time I have watched Smith this season, I have been blown away by his composure and his performance in Thomond Park I believe should be the trump card in the eternal England fly-half debate. Tommy Freeman and Tom Roebuck very much fit the mould of Steve Borthwick wingers. The back row is where I have changed my mind the most but a combination of Tom Pearson, Sam Underhill and Ben Earl has a nice balance to it.

It is always difficult to discern who will be match fit for these games. Both Dan Cole and Sam Underhill missed a series of club fixtures heading into this camp. I have started both because their know-how, as well as that of others such as Elliot Daly and Danny Care on the bench, must balance out the inexperience of others. This squad of 23 features four debutants and several more newbies with fewer than 10 caps. George Furbank over Freddie Steward is probably the biggest call – and is unlikely to transpire. If it tempts Italy into kicking more, to the detriment of their flowing phase attack, that is a positive result for England. Ben Curry is unfortunate but the carrying of Tom Pearson is too tempting. With Marcus Smith cruelly ruled out, I would go all-in on Northampton Saints cohesion and start Fin Smith with George Ford on the bench. The younger Smith has looked calm, composed and as ready as he will ever be to take the tiller in a Test match.

Not a XV I would have guessed after the semi-final in Paris, which feels like a good thing. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Fraser Dingwall deserve a go on form but, cynically, will need to be capped soon rather than later unless England want to lose them to Wales and Scotland. Know this will not shock you but midfield and the back row remain a muddle, mainly due to injury. Excited though for Tom Pearson to lay down a marker and Ethan Roots looks a menace. Marcus Smith has kicked on since France and would have been the pick at No 10, but such is the excitement around Fin Smith that his time has come.

Simultaneously, this has been one of the easiest and one of the hardest England teams to pick. On the face of it, the number of Test-class players available to Borthwick – owing to injury, suspension, or “sabbatical” – is depressingly low; but the head coach still must select a matchday 23 and, therefore, there are tight calls. The pack is straightforward except for the back row, where a trio of dynamic sevens – without outstanding sixes and eights – should run riot. Steward holds off the sumptuous form of George Furbank at 15, but the full-back is under pressure while, with several first-choice backs missing, the consistency and familiarity of Northampton’s contingent could be crucial. To that end, and after demonstrating that he will have the full package as a Test fly-half, it is Fin at No 10; I would have had him there even if his namesake Marcus were fit. George Ford, having only played one match, should not be risked in the 23 owing to tougher tests to come.

Playing perennial underachievers Italy at the start of a new four-year cycle presents the perfect opportunity to get newcomers up to speed with the rigours of Test rugby. The key here will be balance as Borthwick looks to blood fresh talent, so Freddie Steward and Henry Slade anchor a back line that is almost unrecognisable from last year’s World Cup in France. Marcus Smith’s injury is far from ideal but in Fin Smith and Danny Care, England have two top operators and an intriguing halfback partnership that could spring a surprise off the bench. Ethan Roots’ performances this season suggest he is more than capable of filling the big Courtney Lawes-sized hole in England’s pack.

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