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Hartley tackles boring England narrative, George Ford at No10

By Liam Heagney
England's George Ford (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Former England skipper Dylan Hartley has taken issue with accusations that Steve Borthwick’s team is boring but added that a starting half-back partnership versus Ireland consisting of Marcus Smith and Alex Mitchell might be best with a view to the long-term evolution of the side.


The English saw their best start to the Guinness Six Nations since 2019 go up in flames in their demoralising round three 21-30 loss at Scotland on February 24. That setback reignited last year’s criticisms about how blunt their approach is with Borthwick as their head coach.

Hartley, though, has insisted that England are not as boring as they are made out to be, but he explained why change could be useful at scrum-half and out-half after veterans Danny Care and George Ford respectively started the last day at Scottish Gas Murrayfield.

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“There is intent to what England’s attack is trying to do – we are trying to play,” claimed Hartley in his latest Gambling Zone rugby column.

“If you look at the way they opened against Scotland, a few passes weren’t sticking, but the stats showed you that England had the highest pass count out of any team in the opening two rounds. Scotland had the highest kick count, so the narrative about England being boring is something I disagree with.

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“There are a lot of very intelligent players in the England team. We are trying to unlock the door, pick the right pass and manipulate defences to find holes, but they aren’t quite unlocking it at the moment. The proof isn’t in the pudding at the moment but at some stage, it will click.

“England must have been frustrated with that Scotland performance. There were a lot of individual errors in there and, on another day, they catch balls, the passing is more accurate, and things aren’t as bad.”


Hartley added that Mitchell and Smith should be the starting No9 and No10 against title-favourites Ireland this weekend at Twickenham. “It’s a tough one. I can’t see Steve Borthwick changing George Ford but, then again, where England are in the tournament I don’t think they will learn anything about themselves with established players on the field.

“I would understand if some more inexperienced guys were selected as the experience will be great for them – but the same old story of professional sport, fans and the RFU demanding results will most probably mean it is an experienced side selected.

“Alex Mitchell will come back in and rightly so. He is the in-form scrum-half. He’s the sort of guy that can spark something – he is an instinctive player. He is the sort of guy that gives it a crack which is really good. What you need outside of that is someone who wants the ball as well.

“I don’t think England are going to lose anything by playing George Ford. I do think there is an opportunity for Steve Borthwick to be bold in his selection for Ireland. The question Borthwick faces is does he stick with his tried and tested or do you start to move on?


“Marcus Smith has been out, but now he is back, where does he fit into the side? Does Borthwick wait for George Ford to retire and then play Marcus Smith? It would be too late by then. He needs to be bold with his selection decisions.

“It will come down to how England want to play. Do they want to play quite a balanced game – I’m not saying Marcus can’t play balanced – or do they want to throw caution to the wind and give him [Smith] a crack and go for it? England can’t win the tournament, so that is the dilemma Borthwick is facing.


“My head is telling me that George Ford will play with Alex Mitchell but, in my heart, I would love to see Alex and Marcus paired together, and that is nothing against George.

“Then you have the whole obsession with picking between Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence. I’ve always loved playing alongside a powerhouse 12 – like an extra back rower who gives you clear punch and direction – but then I don’t think that Fraser Dingwall would have done too badly against Scotland if he kept his place in the team.

“For me, Dingwall is a really intelligent rugby player. He isn’t known for crash bash but is quietly capable due to intelligent running lines. He has got soft, silky hands and makes appropriate passes and a player like that was missing (against Scotland).

“He didn’t do anything wrong in the opening two games of the tournament and then, suddenly, Lawrence is back available, and he comes back into the team. Being honest, I don’t think that really worked.”

  • Click here to read the latest Dylan Hartley Gambling Zone column in full



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Ed the Duck 128 days ago

Feel slightly sorry for SB in some ways. He is rebuilding his D, his attack and also his squad, all simultaneously and it’s tough to crack, never mind quickly.

Suspect he will look to eliminate the excessive error count from last week, keep things as tight as possible with a conservative game plan and possibly open up if the win is in reach at the close. Just don’t see him doing things in a radically different way. And it almost certainly wouldn’t work if he did. First 20 at murrayfield england were fully on top and he will try to impose this approach for longer.

Turlough 128 days ago

Marcus Smith was the chosen out half for the tournament. If he is going to be the future out half then he must start against Ireland if fit…he must get this experience. If England are ahead with 20 to go then bring on Ford to try and bring it home

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