For about an hour England gave few hints their game was moving to a different level in the Six Nations.
Fresh frames from the bench changed that as England snorted to a 40-9 win against a tiring Italy and their second away victory in the tournament.
England began to increase the tempo as the “sparkplugs” from the bench made a serious impact. They were a mix of debut players, bit-part contributors and others who have been around the Red Rose scene for some time.
Maro Itoje and Paul Hill were on debut, Jack Clifford and Jamie George have not been long on the test scene, Danny Care, Joe Marler and Alex Goode are retreaded selections.
As that crew entered the fray at Stadio Olympico in Rome, they lifted the intensity in England’s game. The pace went up, forwards smashed down the route one channel and more tries arrived.
The final quarter frenzy helped wipe away some of the early dross mixed with lineout and breakdown issues. New coach Eddie Jones wanted his men to smash Italy and eventually when the bench emptied, they did.
“In baseball if you’re a good finisher you get paid a lot of money,” he said. “In our eyes being on the bench does not mean a player is second choice.”
Itoje does not give that impression. The 21-year-old who led England to the junior world title at Eden Park two years ago is a formidable package on and off the park.
He is studying politics, writes poetry, represented England at athletics and at 1.95m and 116kgs is comfortable at lock or looseforward. He showed that comfort when he came on to disrupt Italy’s lineout, cleaning out players and making metres through the centre of the park.
Prop Paul Hill is even younger but Jones had no doubt about his ability to cope with test rugby while George is a burly bowling ball at hooker who is chasing captain Dylan Hartley for his spot.
Clifford is a looseforward with an exotic pedigree after being born in Brisbane to a Kenyan father and English mother. He also brings more leadership to the side after captaining England age-group sides.
All the test fledglings brought a late energy about England’s drive to victory in Rome. So did the recycled Care at halfback, Marler at prop and Goode at fullback as the game became more impromptu while England’s impressive defence has yet to concede a try in two matches.
The Six Nations has a lull now for a fortnight which gives Jones time to assess what he has seen from his players, where he wants to be and which of his squad can take England to that next level.
There is a Grand Slam to pursue and a tour to Australia mid-year where the demands will be even greater on his players. Jones will have to assess whether to drip-feed the rising talent alongside the seniors for the rest of the Six Nations or start them now as he looks for a mid-year dividend.