CHRIS FOY: Steve Borthwick faces a uncomfortable selection dilemma

CHRIS FOY: Steve Borthwick faces a wildly uncomfortable selection dilemma for Ireland clash. The England coach has issues that need sorting all over the field… but it all comes down to whether he is prioritising the result or the bigger picture

  • England head coach Steve Borthwick faces a big call ahead of Saturday’s clash
  • The Roses have issues to sort out after their recent humiliation against France
  • He must decide whether to pick a squad for immediate success or for the future 

The stage is set for more playmaker selection intrigue. England’s three No 10 contenders have all survived the squad cut, after George Ford was declared fully available for selection. So what to do?

It is a wildly uncomfortable dilemma for Steve Borthwick, so early in his tenure. The new Red Rose head coach doesn’t shirk tough calls – he has already proved that – but there is increased pressure on his decision-making after the humiliation against France last Saturday. So what to do?

Just to emphasise, the fly-half debate is far from the whole story here. England have issues all over the field. They need firepower and menace. They need lineout reinforcements and added breakdown presence. They need resolute defenders and canny tacticians. They need experience, street-wise nous and tenacity in all areas.

But there is simply no escaping the familiar focus on the No 10 position. Stick or twist? Stability or horse for courses? Whatever way Borthwick goes, it could all end in tears and recriminations. 

Who would be a head coach, when there is so much scrutiny and polarised opinion? Blocking it all out takes a certain type of character.

Steve Borthwick (middle) faces a huge selection crisis ahead of England’s final Six Nations clash

Borthwick will likely make changes to his side to face Ireland after their recent demolition by France

The England fly-half battle between Marcus Smith (left) and Owen Farrell (right) isn’t the only issue that needs sorting

This high-stakes choice comes down to whether Borthwick is prioritising the result on Saturday or the bigger picture of building for the future. 

To cast aside Marcus Smith already would be cruel, as it would be mighty harsh to judge him on what happened against the imperious French, when England were under siege and over-run in all departments. The Quins rookie remains a bright beacon of hope to be nurtured, but circumstances are exceptional now.

England face oblivion on Saturday against the Irish; that is the stark reality. Dublin could be the scene of a grisly massacre if the visitors don’t make marked improvements, so all that matter is what will give them the best chance to save face, if not pull off an almighty upset. Borthwick is very much in the take-each-game-as-it-comes school of thought, so change is highly likely.

What is known for sure is that a replacement centre is required. What is also known is that more power is required too. So Manu Tuilagi must start, despite his lack of game-time. But who else?

If this is truly a selection based on what optimises English prospects on Saturday alone – nothing beyond that – then it is an occasion for friends reunited. Ford at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12, with Tuilagi in the wider channel. 

It would be tough on Henry Slade, but it combines the best ball-player, the warrior leader best suited for a scrap and the hardest carrier England have, so it makes sense. Blitz the skies, hit hard and keep on blasting. It might not be pretty but it could be effective.

The supply line needs to be better so Alex Mitchell should be chosen at scrum-half, given the way Jack van Poortvliet has become so bogged down of late. High tempo is essential, even if the game-plan is basic. 

Mitchell can concentrate on getting the ball away from rucks as fast as possible, time after time after time. Whatever way England are going to play, it is best to do it against a defence which doesn’t have time to retreat and re-set. The centres can keep switching so Tuilagi can thunder narrow or wide in the hunt for off-balance opponents.

Manu Tuilagi must start against Ireland regardless of his lack of recent gametime

Farrell (right) was dropped to the bench for England’s clash with France but could return at the weekend

Borthwick (right) must decide whether he makes changes for immediate redemption or for the long-term

As a one-off, pick Smith too, among the replacements. Maybe having three playmakers in the 23 is over-kill, but it’s also a case of maximising the game-breaker contingent. 

Smith can come on for Ford if or when the Sale stand-off tires after limited minutes this season, following a serious Achilles injury. Keep Farrell on at 12 and let the rookie bring X-factor which might swing the game England’s way, if they are still in touch in the final quarter. Granted, that is a very big ‘if’.

Fly-half George Ford has been declared as fit and is fully available

On the subject of X-factor, let’s have Henry Arundell in from the start, to trouble the hosts with his astonishing pace and footwork. Whether it is Max Malins or Anthony Watson who would make way, Arundell is a remarkable young talent and Borthwick should try to fast-track his Test development, even in these trying circumstances.

Up front, the loss of Ollie Chessum is a setback which changes an already complex scenario. England will be wary of the lineout threat posed by Peter O’Mahony so they are likely to have been considering a return to the lock-at-blindside ploy which Eddie Jones was such an advocate of.

The withdrawal of Chessum eases the pressure on Maro Itoje, who has been some way short of his previously towering standards, but will soldier on. 

Alex Dombrandt has struggled to assert himself but is alone as a specialist No 8 in the squad. Borthwick could switch Lewis Ludlam to the base of the scrum though, with Itoje at six and Jack Willis at openside.

It is another conundrum. There are so many. Spare a thought for Borthwick, who is stoically grafting and plotting behind the scenes. He won’t duck the big calls, but he has so much on his plate already. There is such a big mess to sort out. Welcome to the hot seat…

Chris Foy’s England XV to face Ireland: Steward; Arundell, Tuilagi, Farrell (capt), Watson; Ford, Mitchell; Genge, George, Sinckler; Hill, Isiekwe; Itoje, Ludlam, Willis.

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