Tommy Freeman image
New eras are never about how they start.

Yet when the dust settles on whenever this particular English journey ends, many will trace plenty of its roots back to this bruising encounter in Rome.

This was not a vintage England performance, Monty Ioane’s late try to reduce the final deficit to three points created a final scoreline that was fully representative of just how close the contest was.

But for all of Italy’s impressive play, particularly in the first half, England came out on top and played out the final 20 minutes in relative comfort thanks in part to the ever-dependable boot of George Ford.

Ford is a veteran of many a Championship, but this crisp afternoon in the Italian capital was all about those making their Guinness Men’s Six Nations debut as Borthwick looks to mould the side in his image following a changing of the guard after last autumn’s Rugby World Cup.

No player embodied that more than Ethan Roots, who put in a Player of the Match performance from the back row on his England debut.

The 26-year-old has shone for Exeter Chiefs domestically this term but might never have graced the Stadio Olimpico had Borthwick had a full suite of back-row options from which to select.

But Roots took his chance with both hands, putting in an eye-catching showing on both sides of the ball, regularly going over the gainline and disciplined at the breakdown.

"Steve just said bring your point of difference and bring that into the team,” said Roots.

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

"I think we stayed in the fight but full credit to the Italians they stayed in it and it was a great game."

Roots was not the only one to impress either, Tommy Freeman was a constant threat on the wing, getting his hands on plenty of ball and his pace proved a real threat.

There must have been a smile on Borthwick’s face as both men played pivotal roles in England’s first try, Roots drawing in Italian defenders with a good carry before Freeman pierced the line with his pace before laying it on a plate for Elliot Daly.

It was one of the few fluid passages of play that England were able to put together as they battled rather than breezed to victory, but there were more than enough buds of potential for Borthwick to be pleased.

He said: “I have been hugely impressed with him [Roots] since Richard Hill showed me the first bit of footage of him a couple of months ago.

"Five debutants today and they have all been great and I am looking forward to them having brilliant England careers.

“There are certainly positives to pull out of it, but it looked clunky in bits.

"They had a certain part of cohesion picking players from one club which sits second in the United Rugby Championship.

"But a winning start with five debutants and the ability to be in a difficult position and find your way out of it is a massive positive.

"You are always looking for change. There are certainly things to be improved and we got exposed by an Italian team that moves the ball well, but we will improve on that next week.”

Roots and Freeman were the headliners but in Fraser Dingwall, Fin Smith, and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso there are positives too, with the latter pair introduced with the game all but won, a luxury few would have thought would be afforded at half-time given Italy’s impressive showing.

That first half is what will leave Gonzalo Quesada and his troops wondering what might have been as they came agonisingly close to a first-ever Championship victory over England.

The hosts’ two tries were full of running and deft hands, with the invention in attack matched by hard work and physicality up front.

But Italy could never truly shake off their visitors in a way that their early showing perhaps demanded and were ultimately reeled in and tamed after the break.

However much like their opponents, Italy will take plenty of encouragement from their opening salvo and other nations will duly take note ahead of their date with a wounded Azzurri in the coming weeks.

"It's always hard when you are that close and you can't get the win,” said captain Michele Lamaro. “We played a good first half.

"We 100% need to get better in some areas of the game, because obviously, it's really tough when you need to defend that much and we need to build pressure during the game.

"It generally really was that 20 minutes into the second half when we struggled to get out of our half.

"We now need to think about Ireland next week. It's not good enough honestly. We need to push and we need to build on this performance."