England plan same starting XV for New Zealand opener in drive for consistency

<span>Marcus Smith scored one try and set up two others against Japan.</span><span>Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA</span>
Marcus Smith scored one try and set up two others against Japan.Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

England are keen to name an unchanged starting lineup for the first Test against New ­Zealand as part of a ­plan to maximise the chances of a series win against the All Blacks. It means Marcus Smith is set to be retained at fly-half while the ­experiment of employing the No 8 Ben Earl as an additional centre later in games will also continue.

Following of his side’s 52-17 victory against Japan the head coach, Steve Borthwick, has reiterated his belief that greater consistency in selection and approach is crucial if England are to re-emerge as a serious global force. Assuming their flanker Chandler Cunningham-South recovers from a sore ankle that will be monitored this week, personnel changes will be few for the team’s series opener in Dunedin on Saturday week.

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Borthwick is convinced that ­England need to develop greater cohesion and wants to avoid ­creating an environment in which attack‑minded ­players such as Smith are weighed down by constant selectorial uncertainty. “We’ve tried to focus on backing them and not worrying too much about them making mistakes,” Borthwick said.

“We want them to just execute their skills because we’ve got ­talented players. It’s not ­necessarily been a natural aspect of our play and we’re trying to develop it. There is a real strength to the English nature about being hard to beat. But we also want an aggressive intent, to have that balance.”

England’s conversion rate in their opponents’ 22 was improved ­noticeably against Japan and Smith, who scored one of his side’s eight tries and helped set up two others, appeared to respond positively to being given more responsibility. His younger rival Fin Smith has ­significant potential but, for now, England believe this is the right moment to back the Harlequins ­playmaker.

Borthwick said: “I’m ­trying to ensure we have consistency in the way we play, consistent personnel and a framework in which we can spend more time on making two or three identifiable improvements. If there’s more than that you don’t achieve any of them.”

They would also like to pursue the option of using Earl at inside centre, as happened in the second half against Japan. It could offer scope for Borthwick to name six forwards on the bench against heavy-duty opponents and be able to have Earl, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and another hard-carrying back-rower all on the field at the same time.

“Ben has the speed and the skillset to be able to play almost anywhere on the field,” said Borthwick, who believes defending off scrums is the only area where the Saracens back-rower lacks specialist expertise.

“In any unstructured situation you back him. He’s got the skillset, he’s got the pace and he’s also got a great rugby brain. The growth with him in the last year has been enormous, and he can still grow even more. It’s wonderful, then having the flexibility to move him into another role.”

The management are also ­encouraged by the number of ­leaders emerging within the team, not least Maro Itoje who led the side after Jamie George went off in the ­second half. Itoje has previously been passed over for the national captaincy but Borthwick believes he could yet be in the conversation when Andy Farrell, the British & Irish Lions head coach, names his captain for the tour to ­Australia next year.

“Maro’s influence in this squad has grown. The players listen to him and have enormous respect for him. Maro Itoje is a Test match animal and a player who I think can get even better.

“Maro used to get the ball and carry. Now he is able to move the ball and put people into spaces. He did it yesterday and against Ireland in the Six Nations. But at the very core of Maro is a physical, destructive defender. That is where he has the biggest impact and that is the bit that grabs people. They want to follow him into battle in that regard. I think he can achieve a lot in this next cycle to the World Cup.”