Among the remarkable total of seven new caps handed out by England’s former head coach Stuart Lancaster in the first match of the Six Nations in 2012, Owen Farrell went on to an epoch-making career of more than a century of Tests. But how many of the others can you name?
Each of Brad Barritt, Lee Dickson, Phil Dowson, Ben Morgan, Geoff Parling and Jordan Turner-Hall was a fine player in his own right, and Turner-Hall in particular was hampered by injury, but none of them lasted beyond Lancaster’s sacking in 2015.
So who among England’s five uncapped men called in by the current boss Steve Borthwick for Saturday’s 2024 curtain-raiser might be around for the long haul, and who realistically is merely keeping the seat warm for someone else?
The starters Fraser Dingwall and Ethan Roots, and replacements Fin Smith, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso have earned their shots through good performances for their clubs.
There may be a team’s worth of players missing for various reasons, but the door is ajar for the likes of Dingwall, the 24-year-old Northampton Saints centre, to place an identifiably different hand on the tiller, after featuring in nine England squads without a cap.
Italy have never beaten England in the countries’ 30 Test meetings, and the Azzurri have won just one Six Nations match since 2015. They crumbled like a stale Garibaldi biscuit in the recent World Cup, beaten 96-17 by New Zealand and 60-7 by France.
On the flipside, a big crowd, and a settled line-up given a fresh lick of stylistic paint by Italy’s new head coach Gonzalo Quesada, will expose any fault lines in the rejigged red rose.
“Many of us have known each other since the international youth teams,” the Italy hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi, back from a long-term injury, says. “There’s a great relationship between us.”
This building block has a replica in miniature in England’s 23, with five players from Premiership leaders Northampton, including Tommy Freeman, the wing who was mucked about by Borthwick’s immediate predecessor, Eddie Jones.
Freeman was making a rusty return from injury when he was thrown in for his third and most recent cap against the mighty South Africa in November 2022, then ignominiously substituted by Jones at half-time. The powerful Freeman can also operate as a centre or full-back, and he spoke publicly for the first time in these pages last week of living with epilepsy.
All round, he deserves this recall, and should play intuitively off his club-mates Alex Mitchell at scrum-half and Dingwall wearing No 12, although Borthwick has not quite gone all in on Saints, as the fly-half Fin Smith is on the bench, with Sale Sharks’s George Ford starting.
And none of them can match the familiarity of the Garbisi brothers for Italy, scrum-half Alessandro and older sibling Paolo at fly-half.
Quesada played 38 Tests as a fly-half for Argentina, and his career around the turn of the century overlapped the galloping full-back Ignacio Corleto and the emergence of Juan Martin Hernandez, which gave rise to a conundrum – or a strength – of who to play where.
Quesada has now set Italy’s backline up with Tommy Allan, a fly-half by preference, at full-back and the electric Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane on the wings, with the super-solid Ignacio Brex at centre partnered by Tommaso Menoncello, who missed the World Cup injured. Borthwick’s expectation is they will kick more now, and run the ball less.
Of his own team, Borthwick says: “We’ve spent three training sessions together so we spend the time concentrating on ourselves.”
This is slightly disingenuous as the core of the pack have played dozens of Tests together, with plenty of hard-edged experienced in Joe Marler, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and company. But the defence coach Felix Jones is new – keep an eye out for England’s line speed, and defending out-to-in – and Dingwall’s promotion with Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence unavailable points to more of a handling game.
We seem to have regressed to a situation where we hope rather than expect England to show us slick distribution, sharp and accurate backing-up, and, yes, kicking where it is needed and effective.
Another centre, Joe Marchant, is also off limits while playing his club rugby for Stade Francais. While Lawrence and Tuilagi will get fit again some time this season, and Marchant is reportedly returning to England with Saracens next season, the hope on Saturday is for Dingwall and the in-form Henry Slade to interchange smoothly off set-pieces and in open play.
In particular, some Northampton-like panache on counter-attack could be devastating if Italy kick poorly. The thought of Feyi-Waboso running Italy ragged late in the piece is appealing.
This match and next week’s second-round hosting of Wales, who have not won at Twickenham since 2015, represent the easiest possible start to the Six Nations for England. If they don’t win them both, Borthwick will be going back to an already much scribbled-on drawing board.