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3 hot takes as Steve Borthwick names England team to host France

By Liam Heagney
Ellis Genge (right) embraces Owen Farrell in Wales last month (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

It’s been the quite the week for Steve Borthwick and England. He came under fire for cutting Marcus Smith loose from the training squad last week. Now, he has ignited another fiery blaze, this time naming Smith as No10 starter this Saturday versus France and benching skipper Owen Farrell. Here are three RugbyPass hot takes on his Guinness Six Nations round four team announcement:

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Nostradamus Matson
Hats off to Tabai Matson, the Harlequins coach. It was eight days ago in a Guildford hotel when he calmly shot the breeze regarding the dramatic release of Smith to the London club following his unexpected omission from the fallow week England training squad.

By then there had already been a massive 24-hour media fuss made about the Borthwick decision to cut Smith and run his eye instead over George Ford, a selection that was generally negatively portrayed as the potential end for Smith.

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The player’s club coach, though, wasn’t buying any of that rhetoric, instead suggesting: “I don’t think not being in training camp is going to hinder him on that and ultimately it might enhance it.” How Nostradamus-like right was he with that ‘win-win’ prediction.

Eight days later, Smith was vaulted straight back into the England No10 jersey rather than being made surplus to requirement to the match day 23, and Matson would have been well within his rights to allow himself a hearty chuckle.

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Borthwick didn’t go into the exact nuts and bolts regarding his specific reasons for ringing this major change to his Test team. There was an admission that goal-kicking wasn’t a decisive factor, the head coach stating at his team announcement media briefing that Farrell was “kicking brilliantly this week in training”.

There was also a claim that Smith running alongside Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade in the 10/12/13 combination was “the right blend” this week, a curious description given the amount of commentary highlighting the supposed merits of having the experienced Farrell playing at 10 in between the inexperienced Lawrence and scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet.

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Otherwise, Borthwick was as diplomatic as he could be about the drama of dropping his England skipper to the bench. There was a reference that “Owen has been brilliant” regarding his demotion, that he “cares so deeply about this team”. But there was nothing given away by the head coach regarding what qualities Smith might bring to the No10 role on Saturday instead of Farrell.

What piqued the interest, though, was how Borthwick made a point in his final answer at the briefing of dismissing the description of picking Smith ahead of Farrell as a bold call.

Despite notable February selections such as axing the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs from the match day 23, the recall from the wilderness of veteran sub Dan Cole and so on, the England boss has been given the label of ‘Conservative Steve’ due to his constant emphasis on his team getting better at their basics.

This ‘brilliant basics’ mantra was interpreted as unambitious, yet you have to give Borthwick kudos for his gutsy approach towards areas of his selection, something he feels is a trait of his.

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“If you were to track all the teams I selected over the last few years, there were some pretty bold decisions,” suggested the ex-Leicester boss. “I’ll leave it to you to track back to last year’s final, have a look at the selection.”

He got it right on that occasion, Leicester beating Saracens to a title they were the underdogs for, and he sounded on Thursday like a coach who has every confidence of being proven right again this Saturday with his latest selection.

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The Dave rave
Quitting your national team for club rugby in France can be a tricky business. Look at how swiftly Simon Zebo was frozen out of Ireland’s plans in the 2017/18 season when it was confirmed before the 2017 November internationals that he would leave Munster for Racing in the summer of 2018.

Signing a French deal, though, hasn’t been viewed as a negative by Borthwick, judging  by how the Toulon-bound David Ribbans has been named on this weekend’s England bench.

It took the Northampton-based South African several years to finally convince Eddie Jones he was worth a Test level shot and he played three times in the recent Autumn Nations Series. Then came the announcement that he is quitting the Premiership for the Top 14, a decision that will end his Test career once gets started at Toulon.

Knowing Ribbans’ future is away from England post the Rugby World Cup, Borthwick could have decided the lock wasn’t worth his consideration, but the head coach is currently very much a week-to-week operator across this Six Nations and the 27-year-old is now primed for a run from the championship bench having been named as the replacement for the injured Courtney Lawes.

“He has been champing at the bit for the opportunity,” reported Borthwick. “He has been training really well and I thought watching him play his last game for Northampton, he played really well there. It is an opportunity for Dave, it’s an opportunity for us to keep moving forward.”

There was no insightful update, though, on the seriousness of Lawes’ latest injury setback. The only reference made to him came when Borthwick was discussing why he gave the captaincy to Ellis Genge. “Unfortunately, Courtney Lawes had to leave the squad this week due to injury, another brilliant leader,” he said.

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The wrong tracks hero
The bunting should be out this weekend in Knowle West in honour of Genge skippering England for the first time. It’s quite the achievement for the 28-year-old Bristolian, someone that Jones regularly referred to as hailing from the wrong side of the tracks.

Genge has been well-spoken over the years about how rugby in England needs to broaden its base and start breaking into more working-class communities. It was a topic he specifically addressed in one particular RugbyPass interview, that football was way ahead regarding its recruitment compared to rugby.

“It is rugby’s biggest downfall,” he claimed at the time. “That is why football is doing so well. You see footballers today being so incredible at the ages of 11, 12 and you see footballers signing contracts so early. Everyone is like, ‘It’s ridiculous’. But it’s not. It’s just investing in their youth and grassroots in the sport.

“Football is looking into primary schools around the country, looking as deep as it can in some of these estates. I’m not saying every footballer comes from an estate, but I’m saying they are looking long and far whereas rugby over the past 10 years, I think everyone agrees, has been very narrow-minded in the whole scouting system.”

Some England fans might feel appointing Genge as Saturday’s skipper is a risk, the insinuation being that he is a bit of a hot head. But he isn’t. If he was you could be sure that Borthwick, who appointed Genge as his Leicester skipper, would not be giving him this honour.

“Ellis Genge is a fantastic leader, is a natural leader and is somebody players follow… I’m delighted for him,” enthused Borthwick on Thursday. Quite the compliment for a player whose upbringing was very different to so many of his England teammates.

ENGLAND (vs France, Saturday – 4:45): 15. F Steward (Leicester Tigers); 14. M Malins (Saracens), 13. H Slade (Exeter Chiefs), 12. O Lawrence (Bath Rugby), 11. A Watson (Leicester Tigers); 10. M Smith (Harlequins), 9. J van Poortvliet (Leicester Tigers); 1. E Genge (Bristol Bears, capt), 2. J George (Saracens), 3. K Sinckler (Bristol Bears), 4. M Itoje (Saracens), 5. O Chessum (Leicester Tigers), 6. L Ludlam (Northampton Saints), 7, J Willis (Toulouse), 8. A Dombrandt (Harlequins). Reps: 16. J Walker (Harlequins), 17. M Vunipola (Saracens), 18. D Cole (Leicester Tigers), 19. D Ribbans (Northampton Saints), 20. B Curry (Sale Sharks), 21. A Mitchell (Northampton Saints), 22. O Farrell (Saracens), 23. H Arundell (London Irish).

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