Why Marcus Smith faces fight for his England place
This awkward decision was coming down the pipe ever since Steve Borthwick succeeded Eddie Jones. As soon as Owen Farrell and George Ford were fully fit at the same time, Marcus Smith was always going to face a fight for his spot.
Ford is the man that guided Leicester Tigers to the Premiership title last season. Although he would not play for another month or so, Ford attended the first get-together of Borthwick’s England regime over the New Year. Farrell was named captain at the earliest possible opportunity. The signs have been there.
Borthwick benefitted from Eddie Jones handing the No 10 jersey to Smith and building the Harlequin’s experience, which increased Ford’s availability for Tigers. This will undoubtedly serve England well in future, too. Courtesy of a curious, 14-second cameo in Cardiff, Smith has featured in 20 consecutive Tests. He has more caps than Danny Cipriani (16) and Freddie Burns (five), to name two other fly-halves that found themselves ousted by Ford and Farrell.
We will never know, of course, whether or not Jones would have brought back Ford ahead of the 2023 World Cup, but it would not have been a huge surprise. Smith could easily be at that tournament, too, but appears to have slid down the pecking order and out of the planned match-day squad for the showdown with France on March 11.
On Tuesday lunchtime, Borthwick would only say that he wants Smith to play for Harlequins and will gauge the fitness of Ford. Smith, explained Borthwick, will return to a larger England squad on Sunday.
A cruel irony is at play as well. Smith’s omission means he will miss a fallow week camp at Brighton College, his alma mater where he was first invited to join England by Jones some seven years ago. Smith, then just 17, and Ford had a kicking session together.
Thank you @George_Fordy for working with Brighton College & @EnglandRugby U17 fly half @02msmith #crossbarchallenge pic.twitter.com/tXuFUaQAzG
— Brighton College RFC (@btoncollrugby) May 19, 2016
Since then, Smith emerged into the senior game before pushing through a tricky patch and enchanting onlookers as Harlequins won the Premiership in 2021. That spurred his England introduction and he was even whisked away on tour to South Africa with the British and Irish Lions.
England’s unsettled midfield has not helped Smith
Despite eye-catching moments it is hard to argue that Smith has made himself indispensable to England. The last year of Jones was characterised by inefficient attack.
Some fair questions will arise. Smith has not really had a prolonged period with a balanced England midfield. He started with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade against USA in 2021, with Dan Kelly and Slade the following week and then with Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade against South Africa in 2021. Lawrence and Tuilagi were injured early in those games.
During the following Six Nations, Smith joined forces with a partnership of Slade and Elliot Daly before Slade and Joe Marchant teamed up outside him. And then, for the tour of Australia, Farrell returned from injury. The outside centres used with that Smith-Farrell 10-12 axis, which Borthwick used for his first game, have been Marchant, Guy Porter and Tuilagi.
Farrell is certain to be painted as the blockage for Smith. Borthwick was reluctant to introduce the latter alongside Lawrence and Slade against Italy and kept Farrell on the field in Cardiff until the dying moments, despite skews off the tee, before presenting Smith a single scrum with which to conjure a bonus point. England’s head coach explained that he was unwilling to disrupt his backline. Farrell was crucial to the pivotal territorial battle. Perhaps Borthwick does not feel as though Smith is not yet consistent enough out of hand?
Why Ford v Smith is the key debate
The more pertinent face-off feels like Ford versus Smith – at the moment – for three reasons. Firstly, there is Farrell’s leadership, which carries a large weight when choosing any starting line-up. Secondly, the skipper covers inside centre, giving greater flexibility to a match-day squad. He is the most robust defender of the three. Farrell amassed 17 tackles at the Principality Stadium and had a hand in four turnovers. Clearly, dogged and disruptive defence is not a fly-half’s chief responsibility. But it added value in a cagey contest and Farrell also directed some neat attack.
Smith has the benefit of working with Evans back at Harlequins this week. Should that yield an assured performance, Borthwick may well field the 24-year-old. Finn Russell threw an interception in Paris, but held his nerve and was rewarded.
Revitalised Lawrence has changed Borthwick’s thinking
Most fly-halves, including Smith, agree that age helps you to understand how to guide a side through the subtle momentum swings that govern matches. Ford has developed that understanding, which is clearly enough for Borthwick. With Ford, Farrell, Slade and Lawrence in the same 23, there are myriad potential configurations.
Lawrence has been wearing 12, but would not have to change much in attack – if anything – with 13 on his back and could be even more effective outside a Ford-Farrell axis. That trio started against Ireland two years ago and was bullied on the gain-line by Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw. But Lawrence looks revitalised. Similarly, with Ellis Genge and Courtney Lawes around as vice-captains, Borthwick should be adaptable enough to give Ford a run with Lawrence and Slade.
This will be viewed as harsh on Smith but international rugby union is harsh by nature and he seems the sort of character to use the set-back as fuel. His time with England thus far has not been a waste. It will have rounded his game significantly. On reflection, Smith’s deft kicking from hand against Scotland was decent and teased the opposition back three. He also chipped to Max Malins for a try.
For now, Smith has been released to help Harlequins snap a run of five straight Premiership losses against Exeter Chiefs on Saturday. The venue? Twickenham. No better place to make a statement.