George Ford has been selected to start at fly half for England in their Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome on Saturday, in a starting XV that also includes a pair of uncapped players – Ethan Roots and Fraser Dingwall.
Owen Farrell’s decision to step away from international rugby opened the door at No 10 to a slew of candidates and Marcus Smith appeared to be the favourite to get first crack at the jersey, only to suffer an injury in training earlier this week.
That left a head-to-head shootout between 91-cap Ford – who has only recently returned to action from an injury of his own and is struggling for form at Sale Sharks – and uncapped Northampton Saints star Fin Smith. Head coach Steve Borthwick has opted for the experience of Ford from the start, with Smith on the bench and in line to finish out the clash at the Stadio Olimpico.
Smith’s Saints team-mate Alex Mitchell will start at scrum half after proving his fitness, meaning veteran Danny Care settles for a place on the bench but should win his 97th cap as he edges closer to the magical 100 mark.
Smith is one of five uncapped players in the matchday 23, with two of those in the starting line-up. Exeter Chiefs back row Roots, who was born in New Zealand and previously played for the Maori All Blacks but qualifies for England through his father, gets the nod at No 6, while Northampton centre Dingwall finally gets his opportunity in midfield, having been in 10 previous England squads but yet to make his debut. The 24-year-old has been rewarded for a stellar season helping Saints to the top of the Gallagher Premiership table and has made more metres per carry than any player in the Champions Cup this term, as well as being a ferocious defender.
Exeter speedster Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and powerful Harlequins back row Chandler Cunningham-South are the other potential debutants on the bench, with Feyi-Waboso set to be capped after choosing to play for England rather than Wales – who he represented at age-grade level.
Northampton are well represented after their superb campaign, with flyer Tommy Freeman on the right wing for his fourth cap, joining mainstays Freddie Steward and Elliot Daly in the back three. Henry Slade is recalled after missing out on the World Cup but impressing for Exeter and takes the No 13 shirt outside Dingwall.
Roots will be joined in the back row by fit-again Sam Underhill and World Cup star Ben Earl, with Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum making up the expected second row in the absence of the injured George Martin. New captain Jamie George is sandwiched between Joe Marler – who has overcome an arm injury to start – and Will Stuart in the front row. That means Ellis Genge and Dan Cole are the prop options on the bench, alongside hooker Theo Dan and versatile Alex Coles.
England have never lost to Italy in their history and while wary of the threats the Azzurri pose, Borthwick is confident of a strong start to a fascinating Six Nations.
“After an excellent week’s preparation in Girona, we look forward to the challenge of playing Italy in Rome,” said Borthwick. “The Azzurri are a dangerous team, with some talented ball carriers and players who like to find space.
“We’ll need to make good decisions, keep our discipline, and maintain a level of intensity to our performance from the first whistle to the last.”
Borthwick’s decision to name five uncapped players in his squad may raise eyebrows but he was keen to stress that all of the quintet deserve the nod.
“Winning a first cap for your country is always a very special occasion,” he added. “We’re delighted for the debutants who have all worked incredibly hard to get themselves selected in the 23 to face Italy.
“I know Saturday will be a very proud moment for the players and their families. My message to them this week has been to be themselves, to grasp their opportunity, and to play with the strengths and skills that deservedly got them selected to a strong Six Nations squad.”
England team to face Italy in Six Nations opener:
Starting XV: 15. Freddie Steward, 14. Tommy Freeman, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Fraser Dingwall, 11. Elliot Daly, 10. George Ford, 9. Alex Mitchell; 1. Joe Marler, 2. Jamie George (captain), 3. Will Stuart, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Ollie Chessum, 6. Ethan Roots, 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Ben Earl
Replacements: 16. Theo Dan, 17. Ellis Genge, 18. Dan Cole, 19. Alex Coles, 20. Chandler Cunningham-South, 21. Danny Care, 22. Fin Smith, 23. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso