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Borthwick explains Smith's absence, why Marler, Martin are starting

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick has explained making three changes to his England Rugby World Cup semi-final team, revealing that Marcus Smith had a return to play protocol setback earlier this week while he felt it best to use Ellis Genge and Ollie Chessum off the bench rather than at starters in the pack to counter-act the influence of the famed Springboks bomb squad.


Smith had initially passed an in-game HIA after being on the receiving end of a yellow carded head clash from Fiji Vinaya Habosi, returning to the field last Sunday to help England win their quarter-final 30-24 in Marseille.

However, he was restricted to modified training on Tuesday when his team commenced their semi-final preparations in Paris and although defence coach Kevin Sinfield said later that day that all 33 players were in contention for selection versus South Africa, head coach Borthwick has now admitted he knew in advance of Thursday’s team unveiling that picking Smith was a non-runner.

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“Marcus was unavailable for selection due to the return to play protocol,” explained Borthwick on Thursday afternoon in Paris. “It was earlier in the week. He took a knock in the game, passed the first parts of the HIA process, finished the game. There is subsequent parts of the HIA process and in one part of that he did not pass and then it was confirmed to me he was unavailable for selection.

“He is perfectly fine in terms of symptoms, he doesn’t feel anything and would expect him to be available for selection after this weekend,” continued Borthwick, who was also asked about accusations that South Africa manipulated the HIA process in their quarter-final versus France to give players a 10-minute in-game rest.

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“We have got a match officials team that is world-class, led by Ben O’Keeffe. I’m sure everybody around the pitch as well has every bit of process in place as it would be, so there are no issues there from my perspective. I will say again about Marcus, it is right to reiterate that player welfare is critical and vital to us.”

The recall of Freddie Steward as full-back in the absence of Smith is the only England backline change, with the two other alterations coming in the front five with Joe Marler and George Martin surprisingly elevated to start in place of the benched Genge and Chessum.


“There are a few factors in it,” he said about these role reversals. “As ever I go through the selection process, the rigour I put to that in terms of how we wish to play, what we need to do, the strengths of the opposition, the opportunities on the pitch, assess all the players.

“Cognisant the travel we have had, the six-day turnaround, what we needed to do and we are blessed here with a fantastic group of players, the strength in depth, the competition for places so I decided to make some change between the starting team and the bench and the players are relish in the challenge ahead.

“We have got three brilliant looseheads in this squad. Ellis has been terrific and I thought he played really well last week. Coming back into the squad after some time away, Joe has also been an incredible influence around the group and we have got Bevan Rodd who is a young player but I would have no hesitation in Bevan being in the 23 this weekend. It’s a really competitive position.

“We need to always balance who is to start and who is to finish and understand we need an 80-minute performance. The start is crucial, the end is vital and we understand that and the performance of our bench throughout this tournament has been very, very good.


“Both of those players [Marler and Genge] are top-quality scrummagers and that is important given the strength of the South African scrum. We know they are rated as the best scrum in the world.

“Every piece of information has them as the best scrum in the world, so we know we are going to scrum well throughout the game and I felt not just at the loosehead but understanding the combination of the two sets of front row forwards that we have, that is also important. As I say, I thought Ellis was terrific last week, but Joe to start and Ellis to finish is the right combination this week.”


Switching to the promotion of Martin, the 22-year-old who has just eight caps (three as a starter), Borthwick outlined: “I have known him for a few years now, from a very young man to seeing somebody now who is at home on the international stage.

“He has come on to the pitch as second row and six at the tournament, has started a game in the pool stages and every minute he has been on the field he has performed and has performed in some big moments as well, key moments for the team. He just embraces getting onto the pitch and giving everything for the team, a real team man.

“The front row boys always give the second rows some pretty direct feedback on how much weight they are giving, they are usually pretty positive about the weight George Martin gives.

“He is a very athletic young man but he is one that every challenge since I started work with him a few years ago every challenge I have put or he wanted in front of him he has just embraced and ripped right into it. He has been playing really well in this tournament.

“I considered all the permutations of a 5/3 or a 6/2 (forwards/backs split). The other thing I considered, and this is much more now over the period of time, is understanding the 80 minutes. We need to ensure, as we have seen in our most recent games, the importance of Q4 (the fourth quarter).

“We saw that last week, we saw it the week before. So, having the players that are on the bench are the right players to finish the game the way we want to… and the right players to start the game. That is always the balance.”

Looking ahead generally to the semi-final in which the Springboks are firm favourites to win, Borthwick reckoned: “South Africa pose a great deal of questions, and challenges in the game as you would expect from the No1 side in the world. They have got that traditional power of set-piece power they have had for a long time.

“Their contestable kicking game is another great strength of theirs and one thing they have added to their game over the last four years has been their ball movement and the speed they have on the edges. We know we are going to have to combat those things to make this a contest, they impose that on the opposition.

“And then they also have a squad that is jam-packed full of power and size. So you know they have got a good team to start and they have got players coming off the bench who are very strong. We have got a pretty strong team and I think we have got a pretty strong bench as well. We know it’s a fantastic challenge against the No1 side in the world. It’s a challenge we are eager to get into.”



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Shaylen 3 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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Jon 9 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Ioane is going to be more than good enough to lock up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

32 Go to comments
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