For 39 minutes the Marcus Smith at full-back trial run seemed destined to join the long file of ill-fated England experiments gone wrong including Ugo Monye’s redeployment to 15 and the whole Sam Burgess affair.
It was a first half in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Harlequins playmaker who had a seemingly magnetic attraction to blind alleys and cul-de-sacs. His decision-making had all the rhyme and logic of a Magic 8 ball.
But then it happened. Chile’s admirable enterprise in attack got the better of them as they offloaded directly to George Martin. Owen Farrell called the backline into shape and immediately fed Smith whose acceleration saw him glide past two Chilean defenders like a Ferrari going past a milk float. Showcasing his footballing skills, he almost played a through ball to himself with a lovely grubber that he collected to gleefully dive over in the corner.
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) September 23, 2023
Even accounting for the standard of the opposition, it was a try of the highest quality and one that few players would envisage let alone execute. This is why England head coach Steve Borthwick wants Smith on the field. Moments of magic like that can win knockout games of rugby and England have very few players who can provide them.
With his confidence now sky high, Smith enjoyed an excellent second half. Suddenly he was picking the right option, timing his passes better and he finished with another try. No player made more than his 154 metres while only Ollie Lawrence beat more defenders. By the end, he was ripping Chile apart at will.
Conversely, Smith also showed in the first half why Borthwick does not necessarily want him with his hands on the control at fly-half. Twice in the first 10 minutes, Smith failed to capitalise on opportunities to manufacture the opening try. Firstly when his attempted grubber kick to Henry Arundell was well read by the Chilean defence. Secondly, and less forgivably, Smith overcooked a pass to Max Malins when it was far easier to score either by accelerating through the hole that had suddenly opened up for him or by just taking a bit of fizz out of his delivery.
It was symptomatic of a nervy and scoreless opening 20 minutes in which England still seemed to be trapped in their perennial doom loop of their anxiety inducing basic mistakes which in turn induces more anxiety. Overlaps went begging and simple passes were butchered. At times it was hard to tell who was the lowest ranked country in the competition with Chile attacking with real verve and no little skill, although their inability to find touch was a fatal flaw.
It took six visits to the Chile 22 before England finally scored with Owen Farrell firing a long mispass to Arundell to score the first of his five tries. At a stroke, it seemed a weight came off England’s shoulders. Suddenly, passes stuck and you could actually see that England perhaps do practise their backline moves in training. Praise be.
Farrell was at the heart of everything. Playing his first game since serving his four-match suspension for a dangerous tackle, his attitude was summed up a crunching tackle on Freddie Steward in the warm-up. His was the only named that was booed when announced by the stadium PA, while Smith’s received the loudest cheer, even as Farrell finished with 16 points that leaves him just one short of Jonny Wilkinson’s England record. Unlike Jonny or Marcus, Farrell will never be England’s golden boy. In wrestling, he would be the ‘heel’ villain to Smith’s ‘babyface’ hero. Yet sometimes you need a good villain.
Farrell’s mispass to Arundell was perhaps his most extravagant flourish. He never makes things any more complicated than they need to be as with his new cropped haircut. Yet sometimes there is power in simplicity. Aside from a couple of shanked conversions, he made very few mistakes when for a time the rest of his backline seemed addicted to them.
It leaves Borthwick with some interesting decisions to make in the coming two weeks leading into the final pool match against Samoa. George Ford was brought on at fly-half early in the second half meaning that England had all three playmakers on the pitch. With Chile tiring in the final quarter, they combined beautifully at times. Ford gave the scoring pass for Smith’s second, which had started when the Harlequin broke down the middle of the field, exchanging passes with Ben Youngs.
With qualification for the quarter-finals all but in the bag would Borthwick dare to reprise the triple-playmaker system against Samoa when Smith would likely be tested far more in defence and under the high ball? Unlikely but for a coach who is often portrayed as conservative and risk-adverse, Borthwick has shown that he is capable of flights of fancy.
Smith finished the game well in credit. So too Arundell whose five tries showcased a finishing ability that outweighs a few of the rawer aspects of his game. Second row Martin, flanker Jack Willis, who scored England’s final try, and hooker Dan, who finished with two tries, also stated their case, even if it is unlikely that they will force their way into the first-team reckoning.
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) September 23, 2023
On the downside, Billy Vunipola was unable to generate much momentum at No 8 bar one thunderous run, making just five runs.
But Borthwick will be delighted at how fluent England became as the game went on. The Chile caveat applies, but given their wretched build-up for England to be on the brink of a knockout place with no major injuries or suspensions leaves them in a very good place.