England heading towards Smith-Farrell axis after Kelly ruled out of Scotland game
England moved closer to a midfield pairing of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell after Dan Kelly, a leading contender to start at inside centre against Scotland, was ruled out of their opening Six Nations game.
Kelly, who won a sole cap against Canada in the summer of 2021, has suffered a thigh injury that requires further assessment. The 21-year-old has been replaced in the England squad by Guy Porter, his Leicester Tigers team-mate.
Steve Borthwick’s midfield stocks had already been depleted by the withdrawal of Elliot Daly and Henry Slade’s continued absence due to a hip issue. Slade remains with the group but is out of contention for this weekend, leaving Ollie Lawrence, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi and Porter as centre options along with Owen Farrell.
It is understood that Marcus Smith and Farrell have been training as a combination and could reprise their 10-12 partnership in Borthwick’s first match as head coach unless Tuilagi is given the number 12 jersey.
Smith and Farrell started with Tuilagi at outside centre in three of four autumn Tests against Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa. In the other, against Japan, Porter started outside Smith and Farrell.
Tuilagi has been used primarily as an inside centre for Sale Sharks. Lawrence, Marchant and Porter are typically outside centres when on club duty, though the latter has covered both roles.
England have been careful not to rule out selecting Smith and Farrell together, though defence coach Kevin Sinfield pointedly referred to the England captain as “a 10”. Upon his appointment as interim attack coach, Nick Evans, stressed that the combination could click if the players were provided with clear direction.
“There’s no reason why they can’t play together,” Evans said. “But you have to be very clear about what you are trying to achieve, how you are doing this, what the detail looks like. Once everyone is clear on that then you can go through with it.
“Some of the feedback was that maybe that [clarity] wasn’t there, so maybe there was a bit of a crossover. It’s just about making sure that you’re very clear on roles and responsibilities.
“Sometimes the old death by detail can be a thing. The over-complicating of things. As coaches, we don’t get much time with the players. We’ve got a week with them and then we’re playing Scotland in the first game, so the information needs to be really clear and direct. The players need to go onto the field and have a really clear understanding of how we want to play.”
Should Borthwick decide against deploying Smith and Farrell in tandem, Max Malins could become more valuable as a backline playmaker from the wing or full-back. Malins, Tommy Freeman, Cadan Murley, Olli Hassell-Collins, Freddie Steward and Anthony Watson are also in contention for places in England’s back three.
Hooker Jamie George appeared in good spirits at Pennyhill Park as he continued his return-to-play concussion protocols with some lineout throwing. He appears to be on course to face Scotland and win a 73rd cap.
Jack Willis, meanwhile, sat out of training on a watching brief with Courtney Lawes and Slade. Willis will ease into preparations for Scotland after starting at openside flanker for Toulouse in a 23-9 victory over Montpellier on Sunday night.