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Six Nations 2024: ‘Brilliant England careers’ ahead for five Rome debutants, says Steve Borthwick

Fin Smith and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
Fin Smith and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso made their debuts late in the victory over Italy

It was a long way from perfect, but a new generation of England talent is off to a winning start.

Head coach Steve Borthwick blooded five new players in the victory over Italy – the most new caps in a single game since Stuart Lancaster’s first game in charge in 2012.

That victory at Murrayfield was the birth of Owen Farrell’s international career.

It was a narrow 13-6 victory over Scotland 12 years ago and similarly, a 27-24 victory over Italy got England’s campaign off to a steady start.

The start of ‘brilliant England careers’

Flanker Ethan Roots picked up the player-of-the-match award in Rome, Chandler Cunningham-South supplied a meaningful impact off the bench and centre Fraser Dingwall helped free up space for England’s dangerous outside backs.

Fly-half Fin Smith and wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, two of the top performing players in the Premiership, also enjoyed brief debuts off the bench.

“It is so pleasing as a coach to be here at the start of five players who I think will go on to have brilliant England careers,” Borthwick told BBC Sport.

“Ethan, in particular, I thought he was terrific and he has been tremendous since he has come into camp. Every interaction I have had with him has been excellent.”

The England blind-side flanker put in an abrasive display, showing why Exeter Chiefs recruited the 26-year-old from Ospreys after his move away from his native New Zealand.

World Cup-winning ex-England flanker and team manager Richard Hill introduced Borthwick to Roots through various clips of him playing for Exeter.

According to Oval Insights the back row has had the second most ruck entries this season in the Premiership, indicating an ability to do the unglamorous but important jobs on a rugby field.

“Steve [Borthwick] just said bring your point of difference and bring that into the team,” Roots told ITV Sport.

“Of course, you will be nervous on your debut, we know the Italians are passionate and they never go away, but luckily we came away with the win.”

Cunningham-South was the youngest debutant at 20 and put in an important covering tackle before racing away down the wing in the closing stages.

The Harlequin joined the London club following the demise of London Irish and showed his raw athletic ability – drawing comparisons to a young Courtney Lawes, who retired from England duty after the World Cup.

However, the standout performer alongside Roots was already-capped Tommy Freeman. The free-floating wing, who picked a great line before offloading to Elliot Daly for his side’s opening try, regularly came inside to give England more options in attack.

The 22-year-old was capped by Eddie Jones during England’s tour to Australia in 2022 and has developed his game as part of an exciting Northampton Saints backline, marshalled by 21-year-old fly-half Smith.

His club team-mate Alex Mitchell scored the try that put England ahead for the first time in the game during the second half.

“Tommy Freeman made a couple of breaks, he looked really exciting,” former England fly-half Paul Grayson told BBC 5 Live. “Fraser Dingwall was quiet and acted as a facilitator for others.”

‘We can challenge the best and win this tournament’

The international retirements of 2019 World Cup finalists Lawes, Ben Youngs, Jonny May and Mako Vunipola and the decision by Farrell to step away has left a large hole of experienced campaigners.

Captain Jamie George remains from the class of 2019 and enjoyed seeing the younger players expressing themselves in Rome, with no fears of challenging Ireland, tournament favourites after hammering France.

“I don’t want anyone to be involved in this squad if they don’t genuinely believe we can go and challenge the best and win this tournament,” he said.

“For us, we’re going to be learning fast and we need to make sure we learn our lessons, being very clear about where we want to go after this game.”

England face Wales at Twickenham next Saturday in their second match.

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