Marcus Smith is poised to make his first start at full-back for England in their World Cup pool match against Chile, with Owen Farrell returning as captain at fly-half.
With England facing a six-day turnaround from their 34-12 victory over Japan on Sunday, head coach Steve Borthwick has taken the opportunity to rest and rotate his squad with flanker Jack Willis and wing Henry Arundell also set to be handed their first starts of the tournament. George Ford, who scored 41 points in England’s victories against Argentina and Japan, drops to the bench while stand-in captain Courtney Lawes is rested.
Yet Borthwick’s most eye-opening selection is that of Smith at full-back where he has never started a professional game. As Telegraph Sport first reported, England first hatched the plan to redeploy Smith from fly-half during their warm-up games. Now Borthwick has followed through on his plan that will excite and intrigue England fans in equal measure, particularly with Farrell replacing Ford at fly-half.
Farrell has not played for England since being sent off against Wales for a dangerous tackle on Taine Basham on August 12. A disciplinary process initially cleared Farrell but World Rugby appealed that decision which resulted in Farrell serving a four-match ban, the fourth time that he has served a suspension for a dangerous tackle in his career.
Telegraph Sport understands the coaching staff hope to reprise the Ford-Farrell 10-12 axis, which was a feature of the 2019 World Cup, in the second half against Chile, possibly with Smith remaining at full-back. Ford has not played alongside Farrell since 2021 but Borthwick intended to play them together against Ireland before Farrell’s red card.
On Monday, attack coach Richard Wigglesworth admitted they were mulling the possibility of combining all three fly-halves in their tactical plans. For a side that has seemed to lack playmakers in their stodgy early victories, England would suddenly be overflowing with them.
“It’s not unthinkable but it is about what else is around them,” Wigglesworth said. “If we have absolute runners around them and that is their skill set we want to upskill as many guides as possible to see the picture early and be able to execute things.
“So I don’t think it is unthinkable, but you have to have a balance around them. We also have Elliot Daly who can run and pass as well, but it is making the balance right. If you do that, it is not unthinkable. I also think that we will develop as the tournament goes on. We have been working incredibly hard to get it right.”
Victory would all but secure England’s passage to the quarter-finals and Lawes, centre Manu Tuilagi and full-back Freddie Steward who has started 28 consecutive Tests, have been rested. Openside flanker Willis and second row David Ribbans are set to be handed their first starts of the tournament with Billy Vunipola coming at No 8.
For Willis it will be a particularly special moment to make his World Cup debut having battled back from a serious knee injury and then being made redundant when his club side Wasps went into administration.
“I’ve spent long [periods of] time not playing rugby, I spent a year out with my knee and believe me you think about it a hell of a lot when you’re sat with crutches or struggling away with your rehab,” Willis said. “I just want to make sure if and when I get my opportunity I maximise it to the best of my ability. For me, emotionally, you don’t want to build yourself up too much but I think I’d be able to get myself into a good place.
“If and when that chance comes you end up reflecting a little bit, thinking back to the little lad who was watching World Cup matches with his dad and his brother in the front lounge and trying to realise how special it is to be pulling on that shirt and running out at a World Cup.
“Steve did say when the squad was named that it was in the low hundreds of how many people had pulled on a World Cup jersey for England. Sometimes you don’t think about that, how few people get the opportunity to do it and how special it is. Just be grateful of every moment and try and maximise it.”