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Marcus Smith starts as Steve Borthwick sparks mind games with early England team announcement

Marcus Smith is seen during the England vision access on June 17, 2024 in Urayasu, Chiba, Japan
Marcus Smith is favoured over Fin Smith for the No 10 jersey - Getty Images/Koki Nagahama

Marcus Smith has been handed a golden opportunity to cement his place as England’s long-term No 10 as Steve Borthwick moved to ward off a potential mind games assault from Eddie Jones by naming his side to face Japan two days ahead of schedule.

With Jones currently 700 miles away with his squad in Miyazaki, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Borthwick took the unprecedented move to bring forward his team announcement. It had been due on Thursday, but this was a statement of intent ahead of their Test match at the Japan National Stadium on Saturday.

It is the first time that Borthwick has engaged in what could be regarded as a pre-match powerplay, mirroring a move by Wales head coach Warren Gatland, who brought forward his team announcement ahead of their Six Nations match against England this season.

Borthwick insisted that by declaring his hand early would not give any advantage to his counterpart, and in the process denied Jones the opportunity to fire any shots over selection issues. Jones is not due to speak to the media until Thursday.

“We have been in camp for a few days. I announced the team to the players this morning so decided to announce it this afternoon,” said Borthwick.

“I have spoken a number of times since the end of the Six Nations about consistency in selection and while there are a number of players from the Six Nations unavailable for this series, I think other than that you see a lot of consistency in selection.

“We’re preparing for a really well coached Japan team. Everyone knows the quality of Eddie as a coach. He’s incredibly well respected for all the good things he did for English rugby. We expect a really skilful, talented, well organised Japan team on Saturday.”

Smith’s promotion to the starting XV, in one of four changes from the side that lost to France in England’s final Six Nations match in March. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, who missed the game in Marseille because of a head injury, also returns in place of Elliot Daly, who has missed the tour following the birth of his first child.

In the forwards, Sale Sharks loosehead prop Bevan Rodd comes in for Ellis Genge, who is unavailable for the tour because of an ankle injury. Chandler Cunningham-South makes his first England start on the blindside flank in place of Ollie Chessum, another absentee after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Chandler Cunningham-South during an England Training session at Pennyhill Park on May 29, 2024 in Bagshot, England
Cunningham-South impressed with his physical displays off the bench in the Six Nations - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

Tom Curry will also make his first return for England since the World Cup in France after being named on the bench despite playing just 35 minutes in seven months because of a hip injury. That was a cameo for Sale in their Premiership play-off defeat by Bath.

Aside from the enforced changes, it can be regarded as England’s strongest XV as Borthwick seeks to build on the momentum from the second half of their Six Nations campaign, and establish greater cohesion ahead of the two Tests against New Zealand next month.

Borthwick’s selection includes three of Northampton’s title-winning side, with George Furbank starting at full-back, Tommy Freeman on the wing and Alex Mitchell at scrum-half.

It is the selection of the 30-capped Smith however that is the stand-out selection. The Harlequins player is preferred to Fin Smith, whose form in guiding Northampton Saints to their first Premiership title since 2014 had put him in strong contention to start.

The 25 year-old now has the opportunity to cement his place as England’s playmaker having spent the last four years of his international career operating under the shadow of Owen Farrell and George Ford.

It is the first time since making his England debut in 2021 that he has been regarded as the senior fly-half in the squad. Farrell has stepped back from international rugby and is now ineligible following his move to Racing 92 ahead of next season, while Ford withdrew from the tour because of an Achilles problem.

“I look at the way Marcus came back from his injury during the Six Nations and the way he played post Six Nations, I think he’s been exceptional,” said Borthwick.

“As a player Marcus has more line breaks per game than any other fly-half in the Premiership. We played against Japan at Twickenham in 2022, we were scoring tries, he was assisting tries and making line breaks himself. I think he is a young man who is already very experienced.

“I think with Finn we’ve seen enormous growth this season, leading the team to win the Premiership from fly half. So I think having Marcus start and Fin having the ability to finish the game and Marcus being able to cover 15, I think it’s a good position for our team.”

Fin Smith takes his place on the bench, along with Tom Roebuck, the Sale Sharks wing who will win his first England cap. The replacements are Theo Dan, Joe Marler, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, Curry and Harry Randall.