Captain, fly half, heartbeat of the team and the formerly undroppable Owen Farrell had been dropped. And not for a midweek tour game, a World Cup warm-up match or an autumn international against a tier-two side but for a bona fide, live, crucial Six Nations contest. A fixture against the second-best team in the world in a championship where England – on paper at least – are still alive in the title race.
Not since 2015, during the debacle masquerading as a home World Cup campaign, had Farrell not started a meaningful international when fit. He had never been dropped during the entirety of Eddie Jones’ seven-year reign but for just the fourth match of Borthwick’s tenure, he finds himself on the bench against France this weekend.
Marcus Smith – the man he was paired with in the doomed Smith and Farrell 10-12 axis towards the end of the Jones era – starts at No 10 instead, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade maintain their burgeoning centre partnership and prop Ellis Genge will captain England for the first time. Farrell will have to get to grips with a new role, emerging from the bench.
Once you get past the initial shock of England’s stalwart skipper being dropped for the first time in eight years, there is logic to the decision and Borthwick was certainly eager to downplay any greater significance beyond the gameplan to beat Les Bleus on Saturday.
“I continue to select a team specific to the gameplan we want to play against the opposition,” explained the England coach. “I go through the gameplan that we wish to play, the specific tactics we wish to play against the opponents and the strengths that they have. I’ve tried to pick the right team for that game, I don’t consider how it will be perceived by the outside.
“I feel the right blend against this opponent is Marcus on the field at the start of the game and Owen at the end. I take every selection decision incredibly seriously. My job is to select the right person to start and then the right person to come off the bench.
“I’m looking at the game against France and Ellis Genge will captain the team. I’ve said that Owen will captain the team when he comes onto the pitch. Owen has been brilliant. He leads the team in whatever role he’s playing. He’s been incredible this week.”
As Borthwick has hinted, Farrell will come off the bench to replace Smith, perhaps around the 60-minute mark all things being equal. You still get Smith’s attacking, creative force for an hour but Farrell’s veteran instincts and wily experience, accrued over 100+ caps, are there to finish the game, which could be vital if the contest is close.
England want Farrell on the pitch when it reaches crunch-time, which is why Smith was limited to just a 14-second, pointless cameo from the bench against Wales last time out. Until he has developed the game management skills of his Saracens teammate, the Harlequins star doesn’t feel like a legitimate option as a replacement if things get tight.
But from the start against France, he makes sense. Les Bleus have a huge, dominant pack but they’re immobile and that creates spaces that the shiftier, more agile Smith can exploit. Watch him for Quins and he’s a high-stepping, hitch-kicking, athletic No 10 always searching for half a gap to slide through.
Similarly, France kick from hand more – and further – than any other team in the Six Nations. Farrell is the better fly half with his boot from open play but realistically, England would still lose that battle, whereas his 24-year-old rival is a more explosive option to join the back three in fielding deep kicks and running them back – much like scrum half Antoine Dupont will do for Fabien Galthie’s men. It does mean that England’s No 9 Jack van Poortvliet will need to play the role that Danny Care does as Smith’s scrum half at Harlequins, being on point with his own box-kicking and exit kicks to take the strain off the man outside him, but he generally performed well in that regard against Wales.
France are famed for their aggressive, blitz defence under legendary defence coach Shaun Edwards and while this is intimidating, players rushing out of the defensive line to make a dominant hit does leave gaps to exploit. Smith has the shifty athleticism to evade the first man and make the most of that space or to put an array of chips and grubbers in behind to get the defence turning.
England’s set-piece play has also improved under Borthwick, with a number of their tries so far in the Six Nations coming from lineouts, while Anthony Watson’s score against Wales started from a perfectly-executed scrum enabling a strike play to be delivered. Having Smith in the 10 channel increases the number of strike plays you can run off the set-piece, given his greater ball-carrying threat than Farrell. With Lawrence and Slade as the midfield partnership outside him, he also has a powerful bruiser at 12, and a secondary playmaker at 13, so not everything will need to come through the fly half – it’s the perfect combination.
Smith isn’t as good a defender as Farrell and with the powerful Jonathan Danty having recovered from injury to start at inside centre for France, expect the No 10 to be targeted by the man almost five stone heavier than him. He’ll need help, probably from a back-rower such as Alex Dombrandt or Jack Willis, in the defensive 10 channel and the onus will be on England’s defence coach Kevin Sinfield to ensure the set-up allows this.
It is not a plan without risk but Borthwick has rolled the dice on his starting fly half. The easy thing to do would have been to stick with the reliable Farrell and not upset the status quo, despite the 31-year-old’s struggles from the kicking tee in this championship – his record currently sitting at an unacceptable 47 per cent. He’s been reasonably solid, if unspectacular, outside of that facet over the past two games. Instead, the new coach has delivered a firm, important, message – no one’s job is guaranteed, no one is undroppable, no one is above the team.
In refreshing contrast to his predecessor, Borthwick doesn’t play games in his press conferences and you can generally take him at his word. So when he says that Farrell will come off the bench and take the captain’s armband at some point during the game, it’s a safe bet that will happen. Similarly, he has earned the right to be believed when he says the decision was made simply for the France game rather than as a definitive changing of the guard moving forward – even if many might see it that way, given Smith is seven years younger than Farrell.
In American football, there is a saying that “if you have two quarterbacks, you have none”, suggesting that without a trusted, guaranteed No 1 starter, you’re going nowhere. Fly half is rugby’s most comparable position to the QB and it’s certainly hard to imagine Ireland dropping Johnny Sexton, Italy dropping Paolo Garbisi or Scotland dropping Finn Russell (now he’s patched things up with coach Gregor Townsend), regardless of opponent.
But Borthwick has opted to play the match-ups and has pushed his chips into the middle of the table by selecting Smith this weekend. It’s the biggest call of his tenure so far but it’s the right one, for now at least. Only time will tell how long that sentiment lasts.