For Steve Borthwick, it is a problem of plenty. In George Ford, Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith, the England head coach has three high-class fly halves – the question for the remainder of this Rugby World Cup is how best to utilise them.
This weekend against Chile, all three are available for the first time, with Farrell returning from suspension to captain the side from fly half, and Smith a starter at full back for the first time in his professional career. Ford, England’s standout performer in their opening two wins over Argentina and Japan, drops to the bench.
Ford’s first two performances have seen him surge ahead in the polls. The individual masterclass with the boot against Argentina was followed by a slightly more subdued but nonetheless composed showing against Japan to all but secure England’s spot in the quarter-finals.
Farrell’s return, however, poses a problem. Borthwick appointed the Saracens playmaker as his captain for the tournament and is understood to be sticking by him for the remainder of the World Cup, making him a selection certainty in the starting side. Ford would appear unbudgeable from the No 10 shirt, which means that the 10/12 axis that proved so productive in 2019 may be reunited.
Borthwick is understood to have been planning to pair Ford and Farrell at 10 and 12 for England’s warm-up before Farrell’s high tackle on Taine Basham put the kibosh on a grand reunion. The evidence from four years ago is compelling but you feel like the head coach would have liked a look at how their partnership works in 2023 ahead of the tournament. It is more than two years since they started together in tandem.
Smith is something of a great unknown. Forcing his way into the starting side with a strong showing in Lille on Saturday would seem a longshot but England like the options he presents in a new-found role at full back. The plan came from a half-fledged idea from Kevin Sinfield as England sought greater positional versatility in their likely squad of 33, and Smith has worked hard to make the most of his opportunities at the new position.
This encounter with the weakest team in the pool feels an oddly crucial contest for the Harlequin’s hopes of further involvement in this World Cup. It would probably be fair to say that a player can’t play themselves into Borthwick’s plans this weekend but they can play themselves out of them. Given the need to have adequate backline bench cover elsewhere, if both Ford and Farrell are starters come the crunch contests, it’s easy to see Smith being squeezed out of the matchday squad entirely.
His frisky cameos off the bench in the last few games have shown that he can flash in attack from the backfield and jumping into the line. But a complete performance in all facets could yet push his case for a key role adding energy and invention off the bench.
“He’s world class, honestly,” says Italy’s Tommaso Allan, a teammate of Smith’s at the Stoop for the past couple of seasons, when asked about the 24-year-old. Allan has flitted between 10 and 15 for club and country and believes Smith is an ideal fit for a similar role. “I was speaking to him a week or so ago when I saw he came on at full-back, and I was playing at full-back. We had a bit of a laugh about that. If you put him at full-back, he’s going to have so much space to do his magic.”
Sprinkling a bit of stardust should, on paper, be easier against a Chile side dealing with the rigours of a major tournament for the first time. Pablo Lemoine’s sparky South Americans have given Japan and Samoa problems but also offered space late on; Smith, with his hitch-kicking acceleration and deft handling, would appeal an ideal roaming second playmaker to exploit it. Farrell’s own attacking development last season at Saracens, and the pent-up frustration of four weeks on the sidelines due to suspension, may see him open things up, too, with a pacy trio of outside backs of Henry Arundell, Max Malins and Elliot Daly providing plenty of tools for the playmakers to work with.
Richard Wigglesworth, England’s attack coach, did not entirely rule out playing all three together. While they would like to retain the aerial prowess of Freddie Steward – who drops out after an unbroken streak 28 consecutive England starts since his debut – in their side, the Leicester Tiger has featured on the wing in the past and could be tried there again.
“It’s not unthinkable but it is about what else is around them,” Wigglesworth said. “If we have absolute runners around them and that is their skill set we want to upskill as many guides as possible to see the picture early and be able to execute things.” No doubt, England have options.
England team to face Chile in Lille (Saturday 23 September, 4.45pm BST)
England XV: 1. Bevan Rodd, 2. Theo Dan, 3. Kyle Sinckler; 4. David Ribbans, 5. George Martin; 6. Lewis Ludlam, 7. Jack Willis, 8. Billy Vunipola; 9. Danny Care, 10. Owen Farrell; 11. Max Malins, 12. Ollie Lawrence, 13. Elliot Daly, 14. Henry Arundell; 15. Marcus Smith.
Replacements: Jack Walker, Joe Marler, Will Stuart, Ollie Chessum, Ben Earl, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Joe Marchant