Marcus Smith call shows Steve Borthwick’s ruthless edge as biggest test awaits England
Steve Borthwick told Marcus Smith he would start against France if he went back to Harlequins and ran the show against Exeter.
Smith kept up his end of the bargain, and in some style, by putting Exeter to the sword in Saturday’s 40-5 Premiership thrashing, and now Borthwick has followed suit.
The new England boss has lived up to his word, by picking Smith to start at fly-half against Les Bleus at Twickenham on Saturday.
Borthwick took a calculated gamble by releasing Smith from England’s training camp last week, where featuring for Quins carried obvious injury risk. Smith was the sole member of England’s matchday 23 from the 20-10 Six Nations win over Wales to play for his club last weekend.
Harlequins thumped Exeter at Twickenham in front of a 55,000 crowd amid a stellar Smith performance, with the 24-year-old fly-half taking that feel-good factor straight back to the Test set-up.
Quins head coach Tabai Matson believes Borthwick’s honesty and candour are already becoming a crucial feature in his nascent England tenure.
“Steve is really transparent, and for the environment he wants to create, that level of honesty, the players love that,” Matson told Standard Sport.
“Steve told Marcus what he had to go and do, and then Marcus didn’t just go and do it a little bit, he did it a lot.
“I think that’s what Borthwick wanted from that, and I think everybody responded in the manner he was after. He also wants that competitive environment where people come in with form and push and play well for England and make it hard for selection. That’s what every successful team wants.”
England kept captain Owen Farrell and fit-again Sale star George Ford in their training squad last week, while Smith stepped out for his club. Ford has returned to Sale and will feature against London Irish this weekend, while Smith and Farrell will take on France.
There’s no other country in the world that has these options at fly-half
England might have struggled after the wretched 2022 that cost Eddie Jones his job, but at fly-half, at least, Borthwick boasts a rich roster.
“I don’t know any other team that’s got a 104-Test fly-half captain (Farrell), George Ford has more than 80 caps, too, and, in Marcus, England have one of the top emerging fly-half talents on the planet; there’s no other country in the world that has that,” added Matson.
“That stable of No10s makes it harder for Borthwick, but great for the English game, because one of the things you don’t want to be is predictable. If you do the same things, it doesn’t matter how good you do it, eventually people put traps in place, so England have options.”
England’s decision to install Smith at 10 to take on France points entirely to a game of high-tempo, running rugby. Scotland took France to task in such fashion, and ran Les Bleus close in Paris in the last round. France eventually prevailed 32-21, but not without a scare.
Fabien Galthie’s mammoth France side boast myriad backline threats, but also a hefty pack that can tire under a high ball-in-play contest. England will look to run France off their feet in the first hour, after which Farrell could step into the fray and steer the hosts home.
“It was a pretty successful strategy from Scotland, they were very close to that working and getting the win,” said Matson. “Perhaps that’s actually the way to take the game to France.”
England shook off their opening-weekend loss by Scotland by defeating first Italy then Wales, but taking on France will prove a different proposition.
Saturday’s Twickenham clash represents the biggest acid test yet for Borthwick. The decision to favour Smith over Farrell underscores Borthwick’s steely focus, but also a ruthlessness in selection. England will hope to be similarly single-minded in hunting victory this weekend.