As the England squad was announced for another week, new questions arise about selection and the thought processes behind it. One such question that’s dogged England fans for a long time now, however, is that over the ten shirt.
Borthwick has made his feelings clear since taking over at the helm of English rugby, Farrell is his man. With Farrell named as captain, there was very little thought that the 103-cap man would be left out of the squad, it seemed to just be a question as to where on the field he would be placed.
In Borthwick’s first match in charge, Farrell was positioned outside Marcus Smith in the twelve position, primarily being used as a second playmaker – a tactic that was greatly trusted by predecessor Eddie Jones. This however, like the latter of Jones’ tenure, did not turn out to be fruitful for Borthwick, as his first match in charge ended in a loss against an impressive Scotland side.
Since then it appears that Borthwick has taken to more traditional approaches with the backline by having an out-and-out flyhalf with a couple of more, shall we say, natural centres in Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade. Lawrence in particular had a barnstorming game at home to Italy a couple of weeks ago, playing that classic strong running style in the inside centre position and allowing the chosen Farrell to dictate play from flyhalf.
Farrell with 1137 points in his ten-year England career has a proven track record at top class level, performing for England, Saracens and of course the British and Irish Lions, so it appears alongside his clear leadership the 31-year-old was the safe bet.
But what goes to say for his junior and challenger for the shirt, Marcus Smith?
Well, the 24-year-old burst onto the scene back in 2017 with Harlequins, playing his natural game and growing in confidence as he went. His impressive performances on the club and junior international scene saw Smith called up to play against the Barbarians in 2019, in a thoroughly entertaining game at Twickenham for an uncapped England XV. It was during this game that Smith started to gain countrywide acknowledgement, with a total of 28 points and a player-of-the-match performance indicating the potential this young man had.
Fast forward to 2020 and Smith was becoming the full package; able to lead, control and use his box of tricks, the young number ten was fast establishing himself as one of the most exciting players in the world. The summer of 2021 was when he really hit the heights of the sporting world as he guided Harlequins to a sensational Premiership victory, before being called up to the England squad to earn his first full cap. In the rising tide of his career he got the well-deserved shock of his life by being called up to the British and Irish Lions tour midway through his second England match.
Smith shone on tour and continued to display some stellar performances at club and international levels, earning himself two man-of-the-match performances in last year’s six nations. There has been a clear shift since those glory days just twelve months ago, however. Very few know the ins and outs of an England camp, and even fewer know the individual instructions given to each player. One thing is for sure however, Marcus Smith is playing differently.
Pre-England, Smith was playing with fluidity in a Harlequins backline that liked to attack and play off the cuff. Smith played what he saw, he ran when he wanted to run, he passed when he wanted to pass, and he kicked…when he wanted to kick. Since the Jones reign, there appears to be a lack of trust in Marcus’ own abilities, with actions appearing now forced rather than guided.
Times when Smith would have previously looked to open up with a step and a pass, are now being replaced with an aimless kick. Take his eight minutes in the Italy game for example, albeit he only received the ball twice, but one of the times it was followed up with an aimless kick reminiscent of Eddie Jones’ time in charge. Charged down and having lost fifty metres in the space of five seconds, you could only suspect a more natural and confident Marcus Smith would have made a different decision. These are actions that would not have happened a year ago, but they are now.
It’s not down to a lack of ability, by all accounts Smith is very much one of the most naturally talented individuals England has had since many can remember. It’s simply that his natural game appears to have disappeared over Jones’ reign, and it’s now Borthwick’s job to ensure that one of the country’s brightest talents does not fade into obscurity.
At the age of 31, Owen Farrell could well be heading into his final ever World Cup, so now could well be the time we see the England captain plays some of his very best rugby, at the peak of his powers.
Marcus Smith appears to be his natural successor, so the year or two will be vital to his rugby education if he is to live up to his true potential.