England recovered from a scruffy start and a 17-8 deficit to beat Italy 27-24 in their opening Six Nations game in Rome on Saturday, ending a run of four successive opening round defeats in the championship.
Italy led 17-14 at half-time and a late try earned them a losing bonus point in their most competitive Six Nations performance against England — the only team they have never beaten in the competition.
England took a long time to find their groove and will be concerned over defensive lapses but coach Steve Borthwick will be pleased with the performances of five debutants, not least man of the match back rower Ethan Roots.
“It is pretty surreal. Words cant describe it — it is special,” said New Zealand-born Roots.
“Steve just said bring your point of difference and bring that into the team. Of course you will be nervous on you 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.”
England’s new-look squad contained only 12 of the 23 who lost the World Cup semi-final to South Africa, and they looked disorganised from the start, particularly defensively.
Italy, with new coach Gonzalo Quesada promising a more pragmatic approach after they had a disastrous World Cup, in contrast were cohesive and sharp from the start.
Tommaso Allan put them ahead with a penalty before Lorenzo Cannone sent Alessandro Garbisi clear for the opening try, albeit via what England felt was a forward pass.
England hit back when Tommy Freeman, showing the barnstorming running that earned him an international recall, broke through and offloaded for Elliot Daly to score.
Italy responded immediately, though, as England’s defence got into a hopeless mix-up to allow Allan all the space he needed to gallop under the posts.
Two George Ford penalties closed the gap to 17-14 at halftime, somewhat flattering for England.
The odds-on favourites finally edged ahead five minutes into the second-half when scrum-half Alex Mitchell showed great determination to squirm through two tackles and touched down.
Another Ford penalty stretched the lead as Italy struggled for any sort of foothold in the face of aggressive England blitz defence.
When they did get a chance to close the gap after an hour, Allan missed his penalty attempt.
England sent on two more debutants in fly-half Fin Smith and flanker Chandler Cunningham-South and when winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso made it five, it was the most since Stuart Lancaster’s first game in charge in the opening game of the 2012 Six Nations.
England won an 80th-minute penalty that they could have popped over for a 30-17 win but they opted for a scrum and were penalised, allowing Italy to kick for a lineout and send Monty Loane clear down the wing through a few soft tackles to earn Italy’s losing bonus point.
England host Wales next Saturday and Italy face the daunting prospect of a trip to Dublin to face championship favourites Ireland who beat France 38-17 in Paris on Friday