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3 hot takes as Steve Borthwick names England team to play Scotland

By Liam Heagney
Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell at England training this week (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

After 45 days in the England hot seat, Steve Borthwick named the first team of his tenure on Thursday afternoon and it was a selection that certainly got tongues wagging. There were eight changes to the starting XV that Eddie Jones named for his last match in charge, the November loss to the Springboks.

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And yet, away from the debate over the axing of Manu Tuilagi, the excitement of newly capping Ollie Hassell-Collins on the left wing and the unveiling of a starting back row containing Alex Dombrandt and so on signifying the changes from the Jones era, the head coach steadfastly stuck by the experiment that Jones had failed to finesse – the combination of Marcus Smith as the starting No10 with skipper Own Farrell at inside centre.

Bar some glimpses, such as in the closing 10 minutes in the November draw when England went for broke versus the All Blacks, evidence that this fledgling partnership of two of the Gallagher Premiership’s most consistent out-halves is gelling at Test level was in short supply.

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Eddie Jones gets emotional in powerful opening Australia rugby press conference
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Eddie Jones gets emotional in powerful opening Australia rugby press conference

Martin Gleeson was the attack coach who tried and failed to get the best out of playing both alongside each other as a 10/12 combo rather than having one of them starting ahead of the other as a No10. The assistant paid for that failure with his job and it now remains to be seen if a mere fortnight of Test level coaching by Nick Evans can produce a very different result.

Evans, of course, knows Smith inside out as he continues to be an assistant at Harlequins, the club that royally entertained when winning the Premiership title in 2021. But can an uplift in the Smith/Farrell axis quickly materialise now that coach Evans has been added to the Borthwick ticket for the Six Nations?

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Borthwick seems to be convinced that it can happen, with the names of Smith and Farrell now officially pencilled in at No10 and 12 respectively for the Calcutta Cup clash with the Scots. What is interesting is that the identity of the No8 and No13 on either side of this 10/12 combo is now filled by Harlequins players who also Smith know very well.

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Alex Dombrandt and Joe Marchant are the duo tasked with adding more oomph now that Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi have been usurped in the selection, giving Harlequins three picks in an England XV where seven clubs are represented: Saracens four players, Harlequins and Leicester three each, Bristol two, and one each from London Irish, Northampton and Sale. We’ll soon know how good a mix this is around the playmaking Quins trio. With it will come the intel suggesting whether or not this is the beginning of the end for Jones-favourite Tuilagi at Test level.

The Cole return
Warren Gatland was criticised earlier this week when he went for a ‘Dad’s Army’ type Wales selection to host Ireland this Saturday in Cardiff, but the heat coming Borthwick’s way after his selection of the veteran Dan Cole on the England bench has been in very short supply.

Not since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final has the Leicester tighthead been capped at Test level but he is now primed to add to his 95-cap England tally following his inclusion as the bench backup to Kyle Sinckler, the prop he replaced just minutes into the decider four years ago in Yokohama after the starting tighthead was concussed.

That outing was one to forget for Cole as the Springboks’ power at the scrum was a decisive factor in securing them the glory and with Jones overlooking him in the years since then, the 35-year-old’s international career looked to be over. Not so.

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Borthwick and his defence coach Kevin Sinfield were the pair who overhauled Leicester, taking them from 11th in the Premiership to winning the title last June at Twickenham. Cole didn’t look out of place in that club triumph and with Will Stuart, the two-try sub versus the All Blacks, sidelined with the injury suffered the following week against South Africa, the new England management have now turned to Cole to provide the scrum safety net from the bench.

It’s a gutsy recall and it caps a remarkable upturn for Cole who will be one of three Leicester players – along with Ben Youngs and Anthony Watson – on the five-three forwards/back split bench that also has three Saracens players and one each from Harlequins and Bath.

Pairing Chessum with Maro
Is Ollie Chessum the daredevil who can help lift the performances of Maro Itoje back into world-class territory? Itoje looked like he was getting pulled from pillar to post during the November series with Jones starting him at lock and also at blindside.

That positional flexibility didn’t have the desired effect as Itoje struggled to reach the very high standards he is cherished for. There was a level of encouraging defiance but that determination wasn’t matched by some of the others named in those Jones packs.

With the axing of Jonny Hill, a Jones favourite, from the second row and the return of Lewis Ludlam as the preferred England No6, the stage is now set for Itoje as a starting lock to remind everyone that class is permanent – and what better way for him to do that by winning back the Calcutta Cup from Scotland under the very watchful eye of coach Borthwick, whose own playing position was second row.

The 22-year-old Chessum is benefiting from his Leicester allegiance with Borthwick. His development at Welford Road was very much nurtured by Borthwick when he was at the helm and that respect has now carried over into the international scene with his inclusion to start at Twickenham.

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