England start new era by relying on old failure

England fans who thought, or maybe hoped, the start of the Steve Borthwick era would spell the end of the seemingly doomed Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell combination that came to define the demise of Eddie Jones’s tenure will be in for a shock when seeing the starting XV for Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Scotland.

There, at fly half, is the name Marcus Smith, with Owen Farrell in the No 12 jersey outside him. Cue mass panic and social media hand-wringing over the return of this most unpopular of experiments.

Smith-Farrell was the 10-12 axis that brought down the Jones regime. It was supposed to be a cheat code in attack, a way of squeezing two elite fly halves into the team as a double-playmaker pivot to create an unpredictable, unstoppable force. It unequivocally failed.

The autumn Tests just gone saw Jones’s “unicorn” trio of Smith, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi finally line up as the 10-12-13 alignment, with the potential of England’s innovative attacking structure set to be finally unlocked.

Instead, Argentina claimed a first win at Twickenham for 16 years, an improbable, harum-scarum comeback saw an entertaining, if unconvincing, draw snatched with the All Blacks before a South Africa side shorn of their European-based players due to the game falling outside the official Test window outclassed their hosts for a simple victory.

It capped a 2022 where England won just five of 12 Tests – their worst return since 2008. They scored only 27 tries in those 12 matches and, if you exclude the runaway victories over Japan and Italy, then it was a meagre 15 tries in 10 games against top-class opposition. Those performances got Jones the sack.

Borthwick was ushered in as the new head coach after the former England captain during his playing days pulled Leicester Tigers from the doldrums to brilliantly win the Gallagher Premiership last year, having previously impressed as England forwards coach under Jones. He’s a man praised for his organisational skills and meticulous attention to detail, while bringing the equally-respected Kevin Sinfield with him from Leicester as defence coach is seen as a coup. In short, optimism abounds at Twickenham once more as the Six Nations looms.

But Borthwick has immediately taken a gamble by sticking with the Smith-Farrell partnership that is so widely scorned and the grumbles around Twickenham will quickly intensify if the Calcutta Cup starts to slip through their fingers due to a misfiring attack.

Smith and Farrell have largely misfired since their pairing (Getty)
Smith and Farrell have largely misfired since their pairing (Getty)

In fairness, this may not be the new coach’s first choice. His hand has been slightly forced due to a spate of injuries in the centres – any of Dan Kelly, Henry Slade and Elliott Daly would probably have started had they been fit, allowing Farrell to move to fly half, where he has so excelled for Saracens this season, and Smith to drop to the bench.

He has also opted against including Tuilagi in the matchday 23, preferring the mobility of Joe Marchant at outside centre to Tuilagi’s bulk, which at least removes one-third of the 10-12-13 axis that struggled against Argentina, the All Blacks and the Springboks a few months ago.

Borthwick will also hope that the appointment of Nick Evans as attack coach on secondment from Harlequins – where he regularly works with Smith and Marchant – can improve England’s flailing scoring attempts. Quins are renowned for their vibrant, expansive rugby and it will be fascinating to see how this dovetails with Borthwick’s more measured, kicking and territory-based game that he employed at Tigers.

Upon being appointed last month, Evans was certainly quick to suggest the Smith-Farrell combo is not a busted flush, while he also threw some not-so-subtle shade at the previous regime.

“There’s no reason why they can’t play together,” Evan insisted. “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.”

An England attack having a clear understanding of how to play would make a refreshing change to recent months and a new era deservedly brings renewed hope, as the all-important World Cup looms on the horizon. They will rightly be favourites to beat Scotland on home turf this weekend, despite just one win from the previous five fixtures between the sides.

But by turning to a play-making pivot that many would say has already failed, Borthwick has left himself wide open to criticism if his gamble fails.