England will begin rebuilding for the 2027 World Cup when they clash with Italy in Rome on Saturday.
Here, the PA news agency looks at five talking points ahead of the Stadio Olimpico opener.
Here it is… 🌹
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 1, 2024
While picking veteran fly-half George Ford might be an opportunity missed against the Six Nations’ weakest opposition – the inclusion of rookie Fin Smith would have provided a glimpse of the future – Steve Borthwick has shown a willingness to experiment elsewhere. Flanker Ethan Roots and inside centre Fraser Dingwall are given debuts while Smith, exciting wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and back row Chandler Cunningham-South will win their first caps if they step off the bench. Some of the changes have been forced on Borthwick by circumstance but it is still England’s biggest injection of fresh faces in the Six Nations since 2012.
Dingwall’s chance to shine
England have been unable to find a potent, enduring answer to who plays inside centre since Will Greenwood retired in 2004. The next player to be given the opportunity to prove he is the solution is Dingwall, who profits from injuries to Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence to take the number 12 jersey at the Stadio Olimpico and possibly beyond. The Northampton Saint has added three kilos of muscle for this season and plays with greater physicality as a result, especially in defence, but his true skill is an all-rounder who brings out the best in the players around him.
Release the handbrake
England must show greater ambition in attack or the goodwill generated amongst fans by finishing third at the World Cup will be washed away. The simplified, kick-focused, data-driven approach was acceptable for the first year of Borthwick’s reign given the need to pick up the pieces of the Eddie Jones era but a failure to add new layers will lead to unrest in the stands. New captain Jamie George has acknowledged that “you get people on their feet when they see tries being scored” and one of the hopes is that they play with greater freedom outside their own half.
Carrying threats needed
A concern hanging over England’s team selection is the lack of carrying power outside the explosive Ben Earl, who continues at number eight having taken the World Cup by storm. In particular, the backline is short on players who can muscle through heavy traffic in the absence of blockbusting centres Tuilagi and Lawrence. There are plenty of options to grind out yards up front, but few to blast big holes in the defence.
Quesada plots Roman ambush
— Italrugby (@Federugby) February 1, 2024
Italy have a new head coach in Argentinian Gonzalo Quesada, who is expected to tighten up the loose game introduced by his predecessor Kieran Crowley. It helped deliver wins against Wales and Australia but the Azzurri self-destructed at the World Cup with crushing losses to New Zealand and France reversing the progress made in the previous 18 months. Since joining the Six Nations in 2000 Italy have recorded a win rate of only 11 per cent and have yet to defeat England in 30 meetings but traditionally they are at their strongest at the start of the tournament as France found out a year ago when they edged home by the skin of their teeth.