Opinion: The England team Steve Borthwick should pick against France and who we think must start at fly-half
The penultimate round of the Six Nations sees England host world number two France at Twickenham for the latest edition of Le Crunch.
After an opening-round defeat to Scotland, England are still in the running for the Six Nations title thanks to back-to-back victories over Italy and Wales.
However, Steve Borthwick faces his toughest challenge since taking over the job, with Fabien Galthie’s Les Blues side heading to HQ.
With the challenge of taking on last season’s Grand Slam champions, Planet Rugby writers Colin Newboult and Jared Wright debate the team Borthwick should pick to beat France.
Colin: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Anthony Watson, 11 Henry Arundell
Jared: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 11 Anthony Watson
Colin: One is guaranteed a spot in full-back Steward, who dominates the air, but the other two positions are up for debate. Malins has impressed in his two games so far but Watson’s best position is on the right wing and I want him there as he is a potential game breaker.
On the other side is Arundell, a player that deserves a much longer run on the field after barely featuring against Italy and Wales. Yes, I understand Jared’s concerns about Damian Penaud, but the London Irish youngster is potentially a generational player and his abilities offer a nice balance to the aerial prowess Steward and Watson will bring.
Jared: We have both gone for three full-backs, and that’s understandable. France have an elite kicking game that requires a complete skill set that all five players mentioned have. Arundell is a special talent, but I’d back the in-form and settled Malins for this one.
Watson must start on the left wing to mark the lethal Penaud. His Test level experience will go a long way in England’s attempts to keep the livewire French as quiet as humanly possible; it’s no easy task.
Colin: 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Owen Farrell
Jared: 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Owen Farrell
Colin: A pretty simple selection, given Henry Slade’s struggles against the Azzurri and the Welsh. Lawrence has been excellent and the 10-12 playmaker axis produced England’s best attacking performance when they played Scotland.
There might be concerns about defence but the Bath man is a bigger unit than Joe Marchant and has defended that channel well for his club this season.
Jared: We are singing off the same hymn sheet here. England‘s attack is evolving, and Lawrence’s rampaging runs have gone a long way in speeding up the process. Slade hasn’t been at his best, and Farrell’s return to the midfield allows the playmaking duties to be shared.
Colin: 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet
Jared: 10 George Ford, 9 Jack van Poortvliet
Colin: Jared differs in opinion here, as you will see, but I want the Smith-Farrell axis rekindled. It’s had its critics but England’s most effective attacking performance in this Six Nations came with those two in tandem.
Farrell and Slade struggled to ignite the backline when it got through more than a couple of phases, which means the talented Harlequins pivot deserves another shot. Ford was considered but he hasn’t really had enough game time yet to play at the highest level. His performance for Sale Sharks against Exeter Chiefs was promising but it’s just a bit too early to throw him back in.
At scrum-half, Van Poortvliet improved against Wales but he needs to make another step up next weekend. However, he retains his position as Alex Mitchell is very much the better option for a place on the bench. He will bring tempo and energy but I still have doubts that he can control matches on this big stage.
Jared: Is there a wrong answer? Borthwick is spoilt for choice, and I understand Colin’s reasonings for preferring Smith over Ford for this match. The Quins star’s understanding of Nick Evans’ attacking patterns gives him an edge over the veteran fly-halves, as does his pace and footwork.
England’s attack and breakdown is not as sharp as Ireland’s, and it will take much more game management to crack open the Shaun Edwards-drilled defence. This is an area of the game where Ford thrives. Reviving the Ford-Farrell axis will give the Red Rose attack the direction that it desperately needs. Ford’s kicking game is also a huge boost, especially when combined with Farrell. With the Red Rose captain struggling off the tee, Ford can also relieve him of that added pressure.
Colin: 8 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Courtney Lawes
Jared: 8 Alex Dombrandt, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Lewis Ludlam
Colin: Maybe a bit controversial for some, considering Dombrandt’s good performance in their past two encounters, but this is very much a selection based on facing France.
Against a powerful and athletic French pack, they do need that extra lineout option in Lawes. With Ludlam being England’s best player in 2023 and therefore basically undroppable, he moves to number eight to accommodate his Northampton Saints team-mate.
The 27-year-old has played there plenty of times for his club, so he knows the position well. There will also be little change in his role, with Ludlam already carrying as much as a number eight would do.
Jared: My colleague has selected a box office back-row; that’s always the case when Lawes is involved. Romain Ntamack will be far more comfortable with my loose trio, as Lawes won’t be hunting him down all game.
My thinking behind it is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. England’s back-row were outstanding against Wales and should be given another chance to shine. Dombrandt’s performance took a step up against Warren Gatland’s side, and the two flankers were brilliant. Lawes’ inclusion will aid the lineout with French threats across the back five, but England have fared well in the set-piece to date and should do so again.
Colin: 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje
Jared: 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje
Colin: Chessum continues to excel in this Six Nations, even if his display against Wales was his quietest. He has formed a nice partnership with Itoje, who was much better in Round Three, and there is a sense that those two are building something.
Jared: Chessum looks increasingly settled in Test rugby as each game passes, while Itoje has come under unjust scrutiny for his performances. Itoje has been quietly grafting through a massive workload in the first three matches and usually rises to the occasion for the big games.
Colin: 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Jared: 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Colin: Jared has gone for the combination which has worked so effectively in loose and lineout, but the scrum remains an issue. It has not gone badly but neither is it dominant and at the moment it won’t worry the better packs in the world game.
Like South Africa have done, England need to start thinking about units and we’re wondering whether there is too much variation in height and body shape for Sinckler and Genge to be effective together. There is also a case for bringing Jack Walker in for George in that regard, with the Saracens man much shorter than his props, but for this game, it is worth trying Genge, George and Cole.
Jared: Colin makes some sound points about the height of the England pack, but it will not play too much of a factor in this match. France will need to change their tighthead for the third straight game. Sipili Falatea is the likeliest starter, and Genge should get the upper hand. Cyril Baille is a shadow of the scrummaging threat that he was last year, and Sinckler is well-equipped to get the better of him. George’s form and experience make him an automatic selection.
Colin: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Bevan Rodd, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Alex Dombrandt, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Tommy Freeman
Jared: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Bevan Rodd, 18 Dan Cole, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Courtney Lawes, 21 Ben Curry, 22 Alex Mitchell, 23 Henry Slade
Colin: We both know it’s unlikely Borthwick will bring in Rodd but he deserves a chance ahead of Vunipola, who ultimately has done little to convince us so far. It also ties in nicely with the debate over units, with these replacement props of similar height and stature.
Technically Rodd and Sinckler are proficient scrummagers and, alongside their work in the loose, they could provide excellent impact off the bench.
Jared has gone for the 6-2 split, which I understand considering the French strength up front, but I always worry about injuries and how that would disrupt the backline. There is no need for another fly-half with both Smith and Farrell starting, but Slade gives you that utility option and Freeman is a better impact player than Malins.
Jared: Vunipola had one of his better stints against Wales last time, but Borthwick does need to explore his loosehead depth. For me, Rodd deserves an opportunity.
My bench would look mostly the same as Colin’s had I not gone with a 6-2 split. However, England could do with a revitalised pack in the latter stages. Ribbans, Lawes and Curry provide versatility, power and break down threat for whatever is needed in the final quarter. I did debate having Smith on the bench, but besides adding an option as a makeshift full-back, he offers little versatility.
Planet Rugby’s England team to face France: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Henry Arundell, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poorvliet, 8 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Bevan Rodd, 18 Dan Cole, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Alex Dombrandt, 22 Alex Mitchell, 23 Henry Slade
In the fly-half debate, there was little to choose between Smith or Ford, but we have ultimately gone for the former as he deserves another shot, while the back three sees Arundell ahead of Malins.
Jared’s front-row gets the nod, but Colin’s back-row aimed at combating the French power is chosen. That is also why Jared’s 6-2 split is selected, which sees Curry and Dombrandt both included to provide impact later in the game.
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