Team sheets tend to stir strong emotions, particularly at the beginning of a Six Nations when there has been a hint of renewal in the air.
On Wednesday night, as it emerged that Steve Borthwick was pondering a half-back partnership of Danny Care and George Ford in Rome, one could sense deflation among England supporters. Hours later, that must have dissipated, because this line-up are just about as fresh as Borthwick could field under the circumstances.
Care and Ford are in the match-day 23, but Alex Mitchell has been passed fit to start at scrum-half to build on an assured World Cup and typically sparky performances for Northampton Saints. Five uncapped rookies punctuate the squad. Should all of them feature, it will be the most England debuts handed out since the victory over United States in 2021, a summer Test that took place during a British and Irish Lions tour.
Ethan Roots and Fraser Dingwall are the starters, and have travelled contrasting journeys to this bow at the Stadio Olimpico. The former, a resourceful foil for Sam Underhill and Ben Earl, slipped subtly into the reckoning and the latter has had to wait patiently for a turn in midfield.
On the bench are a pair of exciting 21-year-olds in Fin Smith and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. Chandler Cunningham-South, just 20, is a raw wild card covering the back row. It was less than two years ago that the rambunctious youngster was signed by London Irish, at least partly on the basis of an eye-popping video highlights reel. He has ousted Tom Pearson, an erstwhile Exiles colleague, and Ben Curry. Cunningham-South’s versatility, as well as his dynamism, might have played a part.
All five newbies qualify to represent different nations, which the mischievous might interpret as Borthwick futureproofing England in more ways than one.
A desire to surround new faces with know-how
Elsewhere, Tommy Freeman and Alex Coles have earned returns thanks to their excellence for Saints. They were last seen at Test level against South Africa in the autumn of 2022; a chastening defeat that marked the end of Eddie Jones.
Just a year into his tenure, Borthwick has demonstrated a desire to surround new faces with know-how. Elliot Daly is on the left wing and Henry Slade, also over 30, rebounds from bitter World Cup disappointment to start at outside centre. Freddie Steward is still only 23, yet has already won 31 caps and feels like as permanent a fixture as this side has had over recent times. George Furbank, another Northampton mainstay, must have been close. That said, Steward exudes solidity.
Up front, Joe Marler and captain Jamie George spearhead a grizzled front row that should flex its muscle in the scrummaging battle. Maro Itoje and Underhill embark on their third World Cup cycles as well. Such figures, as well as Ellis Genge and Dan Cole among the replacements, represent continuity. Here, context comes in. The revamp could barely have been more rigorous than this.
Shaun Edwards, who knows his way around this tournament, often stresses the challenge of a Six Nations opener because a fortnight, comprising two or three proper training sessions, is all that coaches get. England have struggled with this curtailed build-up.
They have lost four consecutive first-round games in the Six Nations, three of them to Scotland in 2021, 2022 and 2023 to follow a sluggish display at Stade de France in 2020. This trend has extended to the first game of all campaigns.
The win over Argentina at the World Cup in Marseille, orchestrated by the metronomic Ford, snapped a run of five tone-setting losses: the 2022 Six Nations opener, the first Test in Australia, the 2022 autumn fixture against Argentina, another Scotland setback and a World Cup warm-up in Cardiff.
Ford exhibited cool class on that sultry evening, not just by slotting three dropped goals but with his stewardship of a team rocked by Tom Curry’s early red card. That proven poise will be why he has been preferred to Fin Smith, because England are sure to encounter choppy patches on Saturday afternoon. Make no mistake, Italy will not roll over.
Gonzalo Quesada has inherited a settled group and is aiming to galvanise the flowing attack developed by his predecessor, Kieran Crowley, with pragmatism and stout defence. A starting back row of Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro and Lorenzo Cannone is nicely balanced. Tommaso Menoncello brings flinty physicality and deft distribution at inside centre. He was badly missed at the World Cup.
England may feel as though they can overwhelm their hosts in the mauling exchanges, as they did at Twickenham last season. In truth, although it would be nice to see flashes of ambition and expansive attack, flamboyance can wait.
Hit by injuries to likely starters such as George Martin, Marcus Smith and Ollie Lawrence, in the wake of high-profile retirements and a need to change captain, Borthwick has a tricky year ahead. Winning, while introducing five new caps, would represent a promising first step.