George Ford v Marcus Smith: The race to replace Owen Farrell at No 10

Marcus Smith (L) George Ford (R) - Ford v  Smith: The race to replace Owen Farrell at No 10

A 45-metre drop goal from Marcus Smith. It was a ‘do not adjust your sets’ moment, distilling Harlequins’ underdog spirit and catapulting the Premiership side to a famous, unexpected victory against French league leaders Racing 92.

But English rugby fans had seen it all before, from an international fly-half, just over two months ago. Except, on that occasion in Marseille – in the white of England against Argentina – it was the drop goals of not Smith but George Ford which drove Michael Cheika’s side into the dirt during the World Cup pool stages.

Smith’s strike on Sunday night was symbolic. Fans might have been forgiven for offering a double-take, for momentarily believing that it was Ford who had suddenly graced the indoor intergalactic surface in La Défense.

But, crucially, it was not. Suddenly, we were presented with a version of Smith which had rarely been glimpsed before. This was Smith continuing his Harlequinade, offering all those flourishes and flashes on which the fly-half built his name, but also carrying out the nuts and bolts with a level of authority, equilibrium and control that had been seldom seen before.

For all the money in the world, it felt as though Smith would use either Tyrone Green or Nick David to counter-attack; instead, he slotted three points from a gargantuan distance to give his side a 10-point lead in a see-saw match. Harlequins’ eventual margin of victory? Three.

The question with Smith has never been whether he can do it but whether he knows when to; whether his decision-making could match the excellence of his skill. On Sunday night against Racing 92, the fly-half showed, for the first time, that he had the ability to put others – not just himself – through holes, beyond the first or second phase, that he could mastermind a set of attacking phases; that he is not just a first violin, but a conductor, too.

It was not just a drop-goal – there was defensive manipulation with the boot, try-saving tackles and flawless goal-kicking – but that moment proved seismic; the perception of Smith as a show-pony, lacking pragmatism, shattering in an instant.

Now, the onus is on Smith to find the consistency that selection for international rugby demands; he must prove that events in the French capital on Friday night were no anomaly and that, were he to be offered the keys to the England No 10 jersey, we can expect to see similar levels of poise to go along with the panache at Twickenham just as we did to the west of Paris.

This is not to discredit Ford. The battle for No 10 in the coming weeks and months will be an almighty one and the Sale fly-half looked immaculate in his side’s win over another Parisian side, Stade Français, on Sunday.

But whereas before Ford was the incumbent, the most likely of the two to be starting as England’s fly-half in their Six Nations opener against Italy on Feb 3 in Rome, after Sunday the gap must have closed. It would not be a stretch to say, even if praise of Smith in his head-to-head with Ford a week earlier was somewhat hyperbolic, that the playing field is now level, with less than two months to go until the start of the Six Nations.

Who starts at fly-half for England in next year’s championship is down to no one but Steve Borthwick. But, in moving Smith to full-back and preferring both Owen Farrell and Ford over the Harlequin, the head coach was clearly not convinced, in the first year of his tenure, that the 24-year-old was up to the rigours of Test rugby.

But Racing 92 were littered with international stars and Smith made them look foolish. Crucially, too, Smith’s error-free performance will have ticked far more Borthwick boxes than his displays might have in the past.

Food for thought for the England head coach – and, for once where English rugby is concerned, the dilemma is positive.