CHRIS FOY: Blimey… Bland Borthwick throws caution to the wind! Maverick Marcus Smith is set for shock start at full-back against Fiji, but it is a horses for courses selection
- George Ford set to be left out as Steve Borthwick ditches alliance with Farrell
- Back-line reshuffle which could see Marcus Smith start at full-back on Sunday
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Just a few months ago, this would have appeared far-fetched; unthinkable even. Owen Farrell at 10 – yes. But Marcus Smith at full-back and Freddie Steward jettisoned – hell no.
A foundation stone of the England team in the last two years is being removed, it would seem. If the news is confirmed on Thursday, this is a monumental surprise and a sign that Steve Borthwick can deal in the unexpected. Maybe there is a well-hidden gambler in him after all.
It’s one thing to try something like this in a banker fixture v Chile, but quite another to go for it when there is no tomorrow if the ploy backfires and England lose. It is do or die. The safety net has been removed. The stakes are sky-high.
There was a polarised response when Mail Sport broke this story on Wednesday. Many English supporters welcomed the anticipated inclusion of Smith in the starting side. But many were incensed to learn that Ford is the expected fall-guy in this plot twist. Within the Red Rose set-up, Farrell enjoys utter, unquestioning loyalty and admiration. Beyond the walls, it is an altogether different story.
So there was outrage amid the shock; about the prospect of Ford being demoted to the reserves, so that the captain can run the show as the primary playmaker. The one making way is the one who was so imperious against Argentina and similarly commanding in the subsequent win over Japan. Most observers would conclude that Ford has done little to be ousted and Farrell has done little to justify taking the coveted fly-half spot.
Owen Farrell will return to the England No 10 shirt for the World Cup quarter-final against Fiji
England boss Steve Borthwick will reshuffle his backline for do-or-die clash against Fiji
But the England management regard the latter as someone belonging up on a pedestal, as a born winner. They want that big-match experience and leadership in their team this weekend, even if it means making a call which goes against any evident playing merit.
Knowing how Borthwick tends to operate, it is reasonable to take at face value the well-worn mantra about ‘picking the best 23 for this weekend’. There is a clear sense of unleashing horses for this particular course. Here’s why…
England will worry about Josua Tuisova, Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu and a host of other power runners storming through their midfield. So Farrell with Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant – as is forecast – would present a formidable barrier. And Smith can be sent out at full-back knowing these opponents are not the side in the world most capable of targeting him with an aerial onslaught.
Simon Raiwalui’s team have a multitude of qualities, but since Caleb Muntz was ruled out of the World Cup with an injury, they have lost their only recognised, out-and-out Test-class fly-half. So they will trouble England with their power, their breakdown prowess, their broken-field running and their offloading, but Smith should not have the ball raining down on him on Sunday.
That is a more likely scenario if England were to reach a semi-final against either France or South Africa. Both of those countries are renowned for their tactical kicking and their ability to reclaim possession with good chasing and contesting. Against either of those, there is every possibility that Borthwick would opt to revert to Steward at full-back, even if Smith has scorched the earth in a quarter-final victory.
George Ford is set to be left out as Steve Borthwick ditches the 10-12 alliance with Farrell
It is less probable that the head coach would go back to the Ford-Farrell axis, as both the French and the Springboks have centres with serious clout. However, a rotation of the midfield combination would be similar to what happened in 2019, when Farrell, Tuilagi and Henry Slade operated together against an Australia side featuring the giant Samu Kerevi at inside centre, but then Eddie Jones restored the Ford-Farrell alliance for the semi-final win over New Zealand.
For the man now in charge of this England team, who is rushing to develop enough of a repertoire to have any hope at all of challenging the leading nations, this is all about match-winning substance. If he is doing this, Borthwick will believe that Smith provides a dimension which can unsettle Fiji and can also cause problems for others down the road, if that road doesn’t lead to a dead end here.
But there is another factor and it is a significant one, even if it does not register at all on Borthwick’s radar. Having Smith at full-back threatens to make England more fun. How novel. They have been efficient in France – thunderously heroic against Argentina, patient and territorial against Japan, dazzling in the hollow romp against Chile and unconvincing against Samoa before locating their get-out-of-jail card. One mismatch aside, there have been more spills than thrills.
The head coach talks about England’s special fans and their fervent backing, but the uncomfortable truth is that it has been something of a love-hate relationship for a while now. The English public are desperate to fall in their love with their oval-ball representatives again, but have clearly hated too much tactical negativity. That is why there has been booing at games. It is not just about poor results – it is about a lack of daring intent.
The standard-bearers for rugby in the country have not managed to capture hearts and minds in the same way that England’s footballers have done – by being more open and engaging – and the cricketers have done by playing with glorious abandon, even when the pressure has built. Nobody is expecting a sudden outbreak of Bazball-type attacking mayhem, but some risks, some swagger and some tries will always capture interest – and rugby certainly needs that in these parts right now.
Having Smith at full-back from the start in a World Cup quarter-final would not suddenly alter the entire landscape of the sport, but it has a symbolic value. Maybe there is still time for hearts and minds to be captured, and great peaks to be scaled.
A back-line reshuffle which could see Marcus Smith start at full-back in Marseille on Sunday
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