George Ford looks likely to be handed the No 10 jersey for England’s Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday with Fin Smith expected to make his debut from the bench. The Exeter winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is also thought to be under strong consideration for a place among the replacements.
Fraser Dingwall is set for a long-awaited debut at inside-centre and the Auckland-born Ethan Roots – who has represented the Māori All Blacks – is also in line for a start at blindside flanker.
After Marcus Smith was ruled out with a calf injury earlier this week, Steve Borthwick faced a decision between opting for the experience of Ford, who is set for his 92nd cap, or Fin Smith, who is just 21 but is the form fly-half in England and is enjoying a fine season with Northampton.
Initial indications were that Fin Smith was in pole position but a leg injury to his Northampton teammate Alex Mitchell has complicated matters. With Mitchell unable to train this week, Danny Care is primed for the No 9 jersey with Fin Smith poised to begin the match on the bench. Mitchell, meanwhile, is set for a fitness test on Thursday morning and could also among the replacements.
For Feyi-Waboso, who is also eligible for Wales, a place on the bench and the opportunity of a first cap would represent a meteoric rise for the 21-year-old, having turned out for Taunton Titans less than a year ago. It is believed he was pencilled in for a place in the squad before England’s injury crisis hit this week and unless that has led Borthwick into a rethink, Feyi-Waboso appears set for the No 23 jersey.
Elsewhere, Dingwall, who is part of his 10th England squad without taking to the field, is set to lineup at No 12 with Henry Slade back in the side at outside-centre, having been omitted from the World Cup squad last year. Dingwall, 24, finally gets his chance with Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence both sidelined by injury. Set to join Dingwall in the backline is his Northampton teammate Tommy Freeman, Elliot Daly and Freddie Steward.
The expected selections of Dingwall and Freeman are reward for Northampton’s fine form this season with the Saints sat top of the Premiership. “He might not be as big as Manu but he is certainly willing to roll his sleeves up and throw himself into the defensive line,” said England’s assistant coach Kevin Sinfield. “He is very good at scheming, his pass selection is excellent. He gives a different option of moving the ball, but I think he provides that grunt up front. He is not the biggest of blokes but he is one who runs above his weight – he can find a hole.”
In the forward pack, Roots’s promotion represents a rapid rise after joining Exeter from the Ospreys in the summer. He is eligible due to his English father and is set to come straight into the side, forming a back row with Sam Underhill – man of the match in the World Cup bronze medal match against Argentina – and Ben Earl.
When naming Roots in his squad for the Six Nations, Borthwick said: “I remember coaching against the Ospreys in Europe, and saw this player and thought: ‘He’s a really good player’. Effectively then I thought not too much more of it, then we were in Le Touquet [during the World Cup] and I was walking through the dining room and saw Richard Hill at his computer watching the Premiership Rugby Cup games.
“He pulled me over and said: ‘Come and watch this player for the next two minutes’. I watched him with Hilly, and it was outstanding – the work rate, physicality he brought to it. Hilly said ‘track this guy’. If Richard Hill tells me to track a back-row forward, I’m listening.”
In the front row, Jamie George will captain the side for the first time with Joe Marler and Will Stuart the expected props. Ollie Chessum is set to be partnered in the second row by Maro Itoje, who has signed a new long-term deal with Saracens and has been offered an enhanced “hybrid” contract by the Rugby Football Union.