Just a few months ago this would have seemed far-fetched; unthinkable even. Owen Farrell at age 10 – yes. But Marcus Smith at full-back and Freddie Steward were jettisoned – hell no.
It seems like a foundation stone of the England team of the past two years is being removed. If the news is confirmed on Thursday, it will be a huge surprise and a sign that Steve Borthwick can handle the unexpected. Maybe there is a well-hidden gambler in him after all.
It’s one thing to try something like this in a bankers’ match against Chile, but quite another to go for it when there’s no tomorrow if the trick goes wrong and England lose. It’s do or die. The safety net has been removed. The stakes are sky-high.
There was a polarized reaction when Mail Sport broke this story on Wednesday. Many England supporters welcomed Smith’s expected inclusion in the starting XI. But many were outraged to learn that Ford is the expected fall guy in this plot twist. Within the Red Rose set-up, Farrell enjoys total, unconditional loyalty and admiration. Outside the walls it’s a completely different story.
So there was outrage amid the shock; about the prospect of Ford being demoted to the reserves so the captain can run the show as the main playmaker. The one paving the way is the one who was so imperious against Argentina and similarly took the lead in the subsequent victory over Japan. Most observers would conclude that Ford has done little to be ousted and Farrell has done little to justify taking the coveted fly-half spot.
Owen Farrell returns to the England number 10 shirt for the World Cup quarter-final against Fiji
England boss Steve Borthwick will reshuffle his backline for a do-or-die clash against Fiji
But the English management regards the latter as someone who is on a pedestal, as a born winner. They want that big-game experience and leadership in their team this weekend, even if it means making a call that goes against any obvious playing value.
Knowing how Borthwick usually operate, it’s fair to take the well-worn mantra about ‘picking the best 23 for this weekend’ at face value. There is a definite sense of letting go of horses for this particular course. This is why…
England will be concerned about Josua Tuisova, Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu and a host of other power runners bursting through their midfield. So Farrell with Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant would – as predicted – be a formidable barrier. And Smith can be deployed at full-back, knowing that these opponents are not the team in the world most capable of attacking him with an aerial attack.
Simon Raiwalui’s team have a multitude of qualities, but since Caleb Muntz was ruled out of the World Cup due to injury, they have lost their only recognized outright Test grade fly-half. So they will trouble England with their power, their ability to collapse, their running on a broken pitch and their offloads, but Smith should not let the ball rain on him on Sunday.
That is a more likely scenario if England were to reach a semi-final against France or South Africa. Both countries are known for their tactical kicking and their ability to regain possession with good chases and battles. Against either of them, there is every possibility that Borthwick could opt to revert to Steward at full-back, even if Smith has scorched the earth in a quarter-final victory.
George Ford will be left out as Steve Borthwick leaves 10-12 alliance with Farrell
The head coach is less likely to return to the Ford-Farrell axis as both the French and Springboks have centers with serious influence. However, a rotation of the midfield combination would be similar to what happened in 2019, when Farrell, Tuilagi and Henry Slade operated together against an Australian side with the giant Samu Kerevi in the middle, but then Eddie Jones recovered the Ford -Farrell Alliance for semi-final victory over New Zealand.
For the man now in charge of this England team, who is rushing to develop enough repertoire to have any hope of challenging the leading nations, it’s all about match-winning content. If he does, Borthwick will believe Smith offers a dimension that could upset Fiji and also cause problems for others down the road, if that road doesn’t reach a dead end here.
But there is one more factor, and it is significant, even if it is not on Borthwick’s radar at all. Having Smith at full-back threatens to make England more entertaining. How new. They have been efficient in France – thunderously heroic against Argentina, patient and territorial against Japan, dazzling in the hollow romp against Chile and unconvincing against Samoa before finding their escape card. Apart from one mismatch, there have been more leaks than tension.
The head coach talks about England’s special fans and their fervent support, but the uncomfortable truth is that it has been something of a love-hate relationship for some time. The English public are desperate to fall in love with their oval-ball representatives again, but clearly hate too much tactical negativity. That’s why people cheer at games. It’s not just about bad results – it’s about a lack of bold intention.
Rugby’s standard bearers in the country have not managed to capture hearts and minds in the same way that England’s footballers have done – by being more open and committed – and the cricketers have managed to play with glorious abandon, even when the pressure has increased. built. No one expects a sudden outbreak of Bazball-type attacking chaos, but some risks, some swagger and some tries will always attract attention – and rugby certainly needs that in these parts at the moment.
Having Smith at fullback from the start in a World Cup quarter-final wouldn’t suddenly change the entire landscape of the sport, but it has symbolic value. Perhaps there is still time to conquer hearts and minds, and climb great peaks.
A rearrangement of the backline that could see Marcus Smith start at full-back in Marseille on Sunday