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Borthwick explains picking Smith for England start, dropping Farrell

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Steve Bardens/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

England boss Steve Borthwick has explained that goal-kicking wasn’t the only factor considered in his huge decision to drop skipper Owen Farrell and start Marcus Smith versus France on Saturday. The new Test-level head coach made just a single change to his round four Guinness Six Nations XV following an opening month in charge that featured two wins and a draw.

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Their most recent success came against Wales at the Principality and the inaccuracy of Farrell off the kicking tee – he landed just two of his six attempts, leaving 10 points behind him – was a post-match hot topic. Even Farrell admitted he stank, saying at the time: “I didn’t kick well, no. That was obvious. They weren’t coming off the way I’d like them to, but I have been here before. I’ll get out to work again.”

Borthwick revealed that Farrell was back striking the ball beautifully at training this week, but there were other factors involved in is choice to promote Smith as starting out-half and bench the skipper that he had appointed in January before the championship began.

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Asked to explain if goal-kicking was a decisive factor in his selection given that so many Test matches are decided by tight margins, Borthwick said: “Owen’s track record as a kicker, and every kicker has this, there are periods where there is a small dip and the great kickers always come back and get the percentage right back up there again.

“I consider every aspect and you would expect me to consider every aspect as I try and do this job as thoroughly as possible. I consider every aspect. Owen has been kicking brilliantly this week in training as had Marcus. They have been working very hard. From my point of view, there are other aspects, wider aspects to be considered within this game and within this game plan – not simply goal kicking.

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“As I always do, I go through the game plan that we wish to play, the specific tactics that we wish to play against the opponents and the strengths they have and for this game I have decided to make this selection. It’s the same process I go through each week.

“It’s a fantastic position to be in that I have such great fly-halves to select from. We had George Ford in the squad this week as well. To have three world-class fly-halves is brilliant and for this game the right decision is to start with Marcus, have him on the field at the start of the game and then Owen on the field at the end of the game. That is what I feel is the right blend against this opponent.

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“I take every selection decision incredibly seriously. The players deserve that, our supporters deserve that, and I will make the best decisions in terms of that selection process. For us, we have got many good players and I have said right from the start we want players who are always fighting to be in this 23 and my job is to select who the right person is to start and who the right person to come off the bench is.”

Few would have given Smith much chance of grabbing the No10 England jersey versus the French after he was omitted from last week’s training squad in Brighton. Having played less than a minute off the bench in Wales, Borthwick decided it would be best for Smith to go back to Harlequins and get some Gallagher Premiership game time.

With Ford included in the England squad at the expense of Smith, it was felt that the scene was set for the Sale player – who played under Borthwick during Leicester’s title-winning season last year – to climb the pecking order and feature in the Test match day 23 to face France.

However, Smith exploded back to form in his club’s team’s thrashing of Exeter and that effort was good enough to catapult him straight into the England No1o shirt with Farrell benched and Ford cut from the squad last Tuesday after two days of training.

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“I’m constantly watching the players in every game they play,” continued Borthwick. “I felt it was important for Marcus to go and play last Saturday to get game time. Marcus has trained really well since joining us this week and what a great strength it is for the England rugby team that we have fly-halves of such incredible calibre.

“George Ford left the group on Tuesday afternoon and his training was an incredible high level, so to have three fly-halves in this week, all world-class, I feel very blessed.”

The decision by Borthwick to bench Farrell and start Smith has generally been described as an uncharacteristic bold call, but the coach suggested he has a habit of making these types of decisions, telling reporters on Thursday to jog their minds back to the XV he named for Leicester in last year’s Premiership final versus Saracens.

“If you were to track all the teams, I selected over the last few years there were some pretty bold decisions. I’ll leave it to you to track back to last year’s final, have a look at the selection. What I try to do is pick the team that is the right team for that game. I don’t tend to necessarily consider how it is perceived from outside. I consider what is the right team to be picked for that game in that week and that is what I do every single week.

“I don’t look forward, I don’t look to the next game after this one or the game after that one or the tournament in a few months’ time. I look to what is right for this game this weekend. The players deserve that and the supporters deserve that because every game matters for England. I believe this is the right team with all the different considerations I put into it and all the different factors against a very good French team.”

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