Rome (AFP) - England forwards coach Steve Borthwick has backed Sam Simmonds to make up in pace what he lacks in physical presence when the Exeter No 8 makes his Six Nations debut against Italy in Rome on Sunday.
Simmonds is some two stone (12 kilos) lighter than England first-choice No 8 Billy Vunipola.
But with Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Zach Mercer unfit, and the experienced James Haskell suspended, England have given a fourth cap to Simmonds, who made his Test debut against Argentina in November.
Simmonds's opposite number on Sunday will be Italy captain Sergio Parisse but Borthwick was confident he would hold his own against one of the outstanding No8s in world rugby.
"Sam did very, very well during the autumn series," Borthwick told reporters at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday.
"He is quick off the base of the scrum, he finds space when he carries and is very hard-working," added the former England captain, a lock in his playing days. "He has some real ability and has a great attitude to go with it."
Meanwhile Parisse insisted a revamped back-row of Simmonds, Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw would pose plenty of problems.
"Of course there are differences between Simmonds and Vunipola," Parisse said at his pre-match press conference on Saturday.
"In terms of carrying, maybe in terms of physicality, they (England) have lost a little bit.
"But I'm really sure he (Simmonds) wants to have a big game tomorrow (Sunday).
"We'll have a really good battle with Robshaw and Lawes so it will be a big challenge for us as a back-row. I don't think they (England) will miss a lot.
"But I'm sure it's going to be a big battle for them as well."
Title-holders England are bidding to become the first team in the history of the Six Nations, through all its guises, to win three successive outright Championships.
- 'Pressure on England' -
By contrast, Italy have not won a Six Nations match since a 22-19 success away to Scotland in 2015 and have lost all 23 times they have played England.
"I think everyone in this Italian team believes in the work we are doing, so of course the results are very important," Parisse said.
"We don't have any pressure tomorrow -- we are playing England, the second-best team in the world. They won the Six Nations last year so they have all the pressure (on them).
"For us, my players are convinced they can put in a big performance against a great team. As for the result, we'll see at the end, but the important thing is to prove (themselves) against a great side.
"For the moment our dream is to do a great performance against a great team."
Borthwick, however, was taking nothing for granted after playing in England sides that scraped 23-19 and 17-12 wins in Rome in 2008 and 2010 respectively.
More recently, the Azzurri, under the guidance of their Irish coach Conor O'Shea, embarrassed England with their no-ruck ploy at Twickenham last year before losing 36-15.
"This is international rugby and these games are always intense encounters and we're expecting that intensity against Italy," said Borthwick
Sunday's match will see lock Alessandro Zanni become just the seventh Italy player to win 100 caps but the injury-plagued lock played down the landmark.
"Obviously it?s a fantastic feeling for me," said Zanni, speaking alongside Parisse. "To be honest with you, I don?t care too much about the 100 caps but for me the big thing is finally being back in the team after two years where I've been sidelined by a lot of injuries.
"I will certainly enjoy the moment."