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The major Six Nations concern for Wales and England ahead of World Cup 2023

Wales and England might regret stepping onto the coaching merry-go-round.

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Borthwick has to ditch the Smith/Farrell axis - Andy Goode

By Andy Goode
When will the Owen Farrell Marcus Smith experiment be shelved? (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results and Steve Borthwick has to ditch the Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell combination this week.


Eddie Jones hung his hat on the axis in the latter part of his reign but they’ve won just four of the nine Tests they’ve started alongside one another, most of which have been at Twickenham, and there just aren’t enough signs that suggest it can work.

In fact, it’s the exact opposite and, while there are always going to be flashes of quality, there are far more examples of one or other looking completely lost and I’m not sure how anybody can make the case that they dovetail well.

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England fans slam atmosphere at Twickenham after loss to Scotland | Six Nations 2023
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England fans slam atmosphere at Twickenham after loss to Scotland | Six Nations 2023

Ironically, the best bit of play England produced in attack for Max Malins’ second try didn’t involve either Smith or Farrell and we need to be seeing so much more from them because there’s no doubt in my mind that Kevin Sinfield’s job as defence coach is harder with them both there.

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell the England captain looks dejected after their defeatduring the Six Nations Rugby match between England and Scotland at Twickenham Stadium on February 04, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Farrell was at fault for the first try when he flew out of the line to try to get Finn Russell, who wasn’t his man, and then he and Joe Marchant just stood there after the initial kick chase for Duhan van der Merwe’s wonder try.

This isn’t a criticism of Farrell’s defence, though, because we all know he can defend but he just isn’t comfortable with the role and it’s as clear as day to me that Farrell is not a number 12 with the way the game is being played at the moment.


He’s a fly half, that’s where he plays for his club and that’s where he should play for his country. Of course, he is capable of playing centre but I don’t think he’s had a really top drawer game in the position in this World Cup cycle.

Farrell is never going to say it publicly but I would hope he’s having honest conversations with the coaches behind the scenes and telling them he believes he should have the number 10 on his back.

He would be so much more comfortable there, there’s no doubt he wants to play there and if he’s the character that we all think he is, then I don’t see any issue with him challenging the coaches and I’d expect him to be doing so as long as it’s in the right manner.

It’s not that it can never work playing two fly halves together, and it did work a bit better with George Ford and Farrell for a while because of the relationship they’ve had from an early age and because Ford is happy for Farrell to take the lead.

George Ford Owen Farrell
George Ford and Owen Farrell /PA

However, France tried it and scrapped it pretty quickly with Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack recently and it’s just so difficult with the personalities that these players often are and the fact they’re used to being the fulcrum at their clubs and then end up playing a bit part at times during games.

You see it a lot with Smith where he wants to be taking the lead but Farrell has stepped in and he’s never really stood in the 12 channel before and there are endless examples of him or Farrell looking uncomfortable in phase attack, whereas Russell was martialling his troops around the field and looking happy going through his options.

It might not have been at the same level but I had it with Sam Vesty at Leicester a little bit and Joe Carlisle at Worcester and it just didn’t work. We were both playing as a fly half and you need the clarity of one person leading from that position.

Clarity was one of the watchwords for the England coaching staff in the build-up to the game against Scotland and Borthwick has spoken a lot about playing to players’ strengths so I think he has to back those words up with actions this week.

There is no way that this is playing to either Smith or Farrell’s strengths and, while there are injuries with the likes of Dan Kelly and Henry Slade out, there are natural options at centre ready and raring to go.

Lawrence Worcester Bath debut
(Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

I’d go with Ollie Lawrence because he was on the bench on Saturday so is the next cab off the rank, and only got four minutes to prove himself at the end, and bring Manu Tuilagi back in among the replacements.

England had 57% of the possession and an enormous 71% territory but they had just 2 linebreaks. They did score three tries but from 11 visits to the opposition 22 and it was like they were attacking with 14 a lot of the time because one of Smith or Farrell looked so lost.

As well as there being greater clarity in attack, it’d have a massive impact on England’s defence and Sinfield’s job this week to have a natural centre wearing number 12.

You can’t say it cost England the game but it had a major impact on a couple of the tries conceded and people can say that it’s just a case of defending one position out but Farrell doesn’t do that week in, week out and it makes a huge difference.

Watching what Italy did to France on Sunday, England can’t afford to persist with an experiment that so far just hasn’t borne fruit and they just haven’t worked in tandem thus far.

Farrell looked good at times when he was at first receiver and he is the most in-form of the two players, while Borthwick has also boxed himself into a corner to some extent by naming him captain, so the Saracens man should be the one to get the nod at fly half.

They say a cat has nine lives and Smith and Farrell have used up their nine lives together at international level for me, giving them a 10th Test in unison and expecting dramatically different results going forwards would be the definition of madness.


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