Owen Farrell handed chance to prove he can beat Marcus Smith at his own game
After weeks of debating who should be his starting England fly-half, now Steve Borthwick gets to sit back and watch the two candidates duke it out against each other when Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith line up opposite each other.
Borthwick is due to be at Leicester's game with Bristol, but he surely must be considering changing to the match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium rather fittingly billed as 'The Showdown'.
The resident No 10 in those parts, England's new record goalscorer in Harry Kane, doesn't have to worry about whether he has a starting spot in Tottenham's side. Farrell and Smith have not had that luxury over the past few weeks, with Smith starting against France in a decision that Eddie Jones, Borthwick's predecessor, described on a podcast this week as a "political selection" bowing to pressure from the media. Smith's start ahead of Farrell turned into England's record defeat on home soil, before Farrell returned in Dublin and England delivered an abrasive, physical effort against Ireland which worked for a while, but in truth appeared a little limited in attack.
Then again, Farrell was helped by England pulling a complete 180 from the side who were bludgeoned to pieces in embarrassing fashion by France at Twickenham. Smith must have watched how England scrapped at the breakdown and pressured Ireland with the speed of their defence and wondered where that intensity had been a week ago, when he had been tasked to try and damage France with a higher-tempo attack.
Back in his natural environment at Harlequins surrounded by Danny Care and Andre Esterhuizen, Smith at least knows what the others around him will attempt to deliver in order for Smith to do what he does best - attack and create tries. What may come as a surprise is that Farrell's performances for Saracens this season have been similarly effective when it comes to opening up in defences. Smith may have beaten more defenders, made more metres and (fractionally) more line breaks, but Farrell has made more offloads and break assists, while the pair's try assists are the same. Smith, for what it's worth, also kicks more possession, although a lot of those are inventive chip kicks to open up defences.
A lot of Farrell's production stems from Saracens' greater intent to attack this season. After 16 games the two sides have scored the same amount of tries (59), with Saracens averaging more offloads, carries, metres, line breaks and defenders beaten while also playing with more width than Harlequins. What does that tell us? That the perceptions of Farrell being somewhat stodgy as an attacking force and less exciting to watch than Smith don't quite add up.
Harlequins head coach Tabai Matson, had no concerns about Smith when watching him hare around in training this week, adding that the No 10 had "bounced back" from the disappointment. "He was driving around the team as a 10. It was that energy that makes him such a good player," Matson said.
“I haven’t seen any waning in that. All the good players, and he’s one of them, are performance-driven, so if they don’t play well it grates them and they work hard to improve that.
“Even though the result against France was poor, I thought he was pretty good in a team that was battling. He wants to push his game to another level and that’s performance-driven."
Saturday's game will be a chance to prove that in front of a bumper crowd with the odds stacked against eighth-placed Harlequins, having only won one of their last seven Premiership matches while Saracens have won their last 15 games at home (even though Tottenham is not technically home). In their personal head-to-head when starting for their respective clubs Farrell has won on all three occasions, and victory for Saracens would extend what is already a useful six-point lead at the top of the table over Sale Sharks.
Perhaps there is a bigger marker for Farrell to personally lay down. His performance against Ireland silenced some doubters but universal approval at this point is probably beyond him - not that he will care. But the chance to prove that he can cut open defences as well as Smith with the two going head to head is certainly intriguing. And for Smith, getting a win over the player standing in his way of becoming England's fly-half could not come at a better time.