England survived a scare at the Stadio Olimpico to launch their post-World Cup rebuild with a 27-24 victory over Italy in their Six Nations opener.
For only the third time in the history of a rivalry spanning 31 Tests, inspired Italy led at the interval, but their 17-14 advantage was methodically picked apart by Steve Borthwick’s men.
Tommy Freeman proved England’s most effective weapon in attack, the Northampton wing roaming the pitch in search of impactful moments, but it was Elliot Daly and Alex Mitchell who finished the tries.
As promised by new captain Jamie George, the favourites played with greater freedom and there was less kicking than in the first year of Borthwick’s reign, at least until the focus switched to grinding Italy down in the final half-hour.
But overall the more exciting rugby was played by the Azzurri, who showed ingenuity and ambition in their pursuit of a maiden victory against their rivals and their second try scored by Tommaso Allan was a beauty.
New caps Ethan Roots, Fraser Dingwall, Fin Smith, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso brought a freshness to England, who ended their four-year stretch of beginning the Six Nations with a defeat, but the initial outlook was far less rosy.
They lost replacement prop Ellis Genge to a foot injury shortly before kick-off and that was only the start of their problems as early enterprise from Italy engineered a try for Alessandro Garbisi.
It rewarded their brighter start and came when Lorenzo Cannone was sent through a gap, with Garbisi able to scoop up the offload.
With Allan and George Ford exchanging penalties the score read 10-3, but the deficit provided the jolt England needed as Freeman glided into space and delivered the scoring pass to Daly.
The try had been coming but it was quickly overshadowed by a stunning riposte from Italy, whose precise passing and clever running off set-piece ball was executed beautifully for Allan to score.
Two penalties by Ford kept England snapping at the Azzurri’s heels at half-time and they needed to regroup quickly, particularly in defence, to spare themselves an unwanted slice of history.
Reassurance came when Mitchell jinked and spun his way over the whitewash in the 45th minute and for the first time the visitors led.
Italy’s play now lacked its earlier precision and they were pinned deep in their own half as England tightened the screw with Ford landing successive penalties to propel them 10 points ahead.
Handling errors cost the Azzurri time and again and their line-out continued to malfunction in an exasperating period for the hosts that also saw Allan miss an important penalty.
Daly was sent to the sin-bin for a trip as Italy hunted the try that would haul them back into contention, but they were unable to produce any more magic as the upset slipped from their fingertips despite a last-gasp Monty Ioane touch down.