Te’o has ousted Jonathan Joseph at outside centre for the Stadio Olimpico showdown, making his first Test appearance outside of the British and Irish Lions tour for almost a year after recovering from three months out with a high ankle sprain.
He faced Italy in the 2017 Championship but his only other England start suffered amid “ruckgate”, the controversial yet then-legal tactic employed by Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri to spread confusion among the Red Rose ranks at Twickenham.
The plan was named ‘The Fox’ by its architects and head coach Eddie Jones wants Te’o, a destructive ball carrier who will bring a physical edge to midfield, to seize his chance this time.
“We played him against Italy last year and the fox got him. The fox got him big time, so he wants to go fox-hunting this week,” Jones said.
“We want to see him carry the ball. If there are no foxes out there, he might have a chance. We want him to hit the line hard, that’s what he’s good at. For a big man he’s got good footwork. His attitude is great and he’ll add a different dimension at 13 for us.
“And that’s how we want to play against Italy — a really physical game to set the tone for the tournament. We want to be brutal and absolutely ruthless on Sunday.”
Te’o made an impact on the Lions’ drawn series with New Zealand last summer, containing Sonny Bill Williams in the first Test before winning his 10th cap in the Auckland decider.
Subsequently the Worcester centre started the Aviva Premiership season only to damage the syndesmotic ligaments of the lower leg in mid October, resulting in surgery and a lay-off that will conclude on Sunday.
Rehabilitation was undertaken in Brisbane at the player’s own cost and Jones saw enough during last week’s training camp in Portugal to convince him he was ready to for Italy. “Ben was outstanding in the first Lions Test. He went at Sonny Bill and did some really good things,” Jones said.
“I know he was criticised a bit for not passing, but he had a significant impact in that game and looked like a player who can win Test matches for you.
“He’s just a good rugby player. He was ranked above Sam Burgess — that’s the stature of him in rugby league.
Te’o’s importance to the team grows in the absence of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, the marauding number eights who provide the majority of England’s momentum.
“Size is always an issue for us. The issue is – do we find bigger players or do we get quicker or more skilful? We look at both options and we’re working on both,” Jones said.
Meanwhile Benetton’s Alessandro Zanni will win his 100th cap for Italy on Sunday following a two-year absence. The 34-year-old, who was named at lock, last played against Wales in the Six Nations in March 2016 and has been out injured for much of the time since. He has spent most of his career as a loose forward.
He is among seven changes in the team named by Conor O’Shea yesterday from their 35-6 defeat to South Africa in Padua last November.
Tommaso Allan returns at flyhalf after injury kept him out of the last three internationals against Fiji, Argentina and the Springboks and there are starting berths for veterans Tommaso Benvenuti at wing and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini.
Seven players will be making their first Six Nations appearance, including Matteo Minozzi at fullback, the centre pairing of Tommaso Boni and Tommaso Castello, youthful flankers Renato Giammarioli and Sebastian Negri, New Zealand-born lock Dean Budd and Simone Ferrari in the front row.
Natwest 6 Nations: Italy v England
Stadio Olimpico, 3pm
Mathieu Raynal (France)
Italy 13/1, England 1/25, Draw 35/1