Borthwick’s England vision taking shape as Marcus Smith gets leading role

<span>Marcus Smith (left) will start for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> ahead of fellow fly-half Fin Smith in the Test against Japan.</span><span>Photograph: Koki Nagahama/RFU/The RFU Collection/Getty Images</span>

The past 24 hours have seen an estimated eight inches of torrential rain fall in the Tokyo region but England are determined to shine brightly against Japan this Saturday. Steve Borthwick wants his team to trust their attacking instincts against Eddie Jones’s side and the choice of Marcus Smith at fly-half and a first start for Chandler Cunningham-South in the back row reflects the proactive mood.

Rather than waiting until Thursday to name his side as scheduled, Borthwick opted to push forward the announcement by 48 hours, the kind of pre-emptive curveball often thrown by Jones on occasions in the past. Arguably most striking of all, though, is his desire for his players to maintain the momentum they were building in the latter half of the Six Nations, with Smith handed the baton as chief playmaker.

Related: England in fine fettle to face rugby Everest: an odyssey in New Zealand

The 25-year-old Harlequin will regard this as an opportunity that needs to be grasped, with Borthwick having chosen to back him rather than give a first Test start to his Northampton namesake Fin Smith. England have previously relied on the experienced Owen Farrell or George Ford to set the tactical tone and, with the latter now unavailable through injury and Farrell heading to France, there had been some speculation the younger Smith might be fast-tracked.

Instead the effervescent Quins No 10 has been given the nod and invited to stake an unanswerable claim before next month’s two-Test series in New Zealand. Until an untimely injury struck in January he had been poised to be England’s first-choice fly-half in the Six Nations but it was Ford who eventually took the reins.

It underlines England’s commitment to the quicker, more attacking brand of rugby that is fast becoming their preferred modus operandi, albeit with a continuing emphasis on getting the basics right at the breakdown and at the set-pieces. “What is important is that we go on to the pitch on Saturday and play the way we have been building over this last few months,” confirmed Borthwick. “We showed some growth through the Six Nations and now we wish to take the next step. We have a young squad full of talent and exciting players. What I say to them every day is to bring their point of difference on to the pitch.”

It is equally clear, though, that Borthwick’s vision of England’s medium-term future is taking real shape. Already he has taken a decisive call at full-back, where George Furbank has edged past Freddie Steward, and backed form Premiership players such as Alex Mitchell and Henry Slade, neither of whom were part of his original World Cup selection. He is clearly now hoping that investing a little faith in Smith will unlock the obvious ability that, to date, has only been permitted to flower at Test level in fits and starts.

England starting XV v Japan on Saturday: G Furbank; I Feyi-Waboso, H Slade, O Lawrence, T Freeman; M Smith, A Mitchell; B Rodd, J George (capt), D Cole, M Itoje, G Martin, C Cunningham-South, S Underhill, B Earl.

Replacements: T Dan, J Marler, W Stuart, C Ewels, T Curry, H Randall, F Smith, T Roebuck.

“From the first moment he walked into camp I sensed an even greater determination and hunger than I’ve ever seen in Marcus,” confirmed Borthwick. “As a player Marcus has more line breaks per game than any other fly-half in the Premiership. I rate Marcus exceptionally highly and I feel very privileged as a coach to have both Marcus and Fin in this squad.”

In total the starting XV shows a total of four changes from the team’s last game against France in Lyon in March. The dynamic Cunningham-South, a powerful ball-carrier with a big future, replaces the injured Ollie Chessum at blindside flanker while Sale’s Bevan Rodd fills the front-row hole left by another pre-tour casualty Ellis Genge. In addition to Smith’s return at fly-half, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is back on the wing having missed the France game.

The matchday squad will also see the return on the bench of Tom Curry, who has not featured for England since the World Cup because of a hip problem which necessitated surgery. His uncapped clubmate Tom Roebuck is in line for a debut as a replacement, with Bath’s Charlie Ewels and Bristol’s Harry Randall also recalled on the bench.

“This is an important next step as a team,” stressed Borthwick, who was part of Japan’s coaching staff during Jones’s first spell in charge. One of his fondest memories with the Brave Blossoms was a beach mauling session which spilled over into the sea – “We ended up going into slightly deeper water where one or two players didn’t feel comfortable” – and he is relishing being back in Tokyo. He will enjoy it even more if the weather dries up and England can dazzle on Saturday.