Farrell/Smith drama masks the real selection controversy - Andy Goode
The news of Owen Farrell’s positive Covid test and Marcus Smith’s likely promotion to the starting XV will steal the headlines but it is the omissions elsewhere that should ring alarm bells.
First and foremost, we all hope the England captain is ok but I actually think Eddie Jones was spot on to select him and not Smith in the original starting XV, despite the criticism he has received from elsewhere.
The Harlequin is clearly the in-form man and would have started had fitness not been an issue but he hasn’t trained fully this week and the mantra that ‘if you’re fit to be on the bench, you’re fit to start’ is nonsense.
As a fly half, especially at international level, you need to be running the show throughout the whole week or at the very least doing the bulk of the training and that just hasn’t been the case for Smith because of his lower leg injury.
Add to that, the fact that he has just two England caps to his name and that only five of this starting XV against Tonga played alongside him in those couple of Tests against weaker opposition over the summer and it’s an even more understandable decision.
He’s never played with a lot of these frontline England players so to choose to throw him in without being able to even work on those combinations properly in training would have been unfair on him as well as not right for the team.
As it turns out, Farrell’s positive Covid test means Jones’ hand has been forced and he is thrust in at the deep end though. It isn’t ideal but needs must and a mixture of his rugby instincts, having top class players around him and the opposition not being of the highest calibre means I’m sure he’ll be just fine.
One upside to not being able to start Smith and Farrell together is that we actually get to see what I think is England’s best centre partnership in action and it’s brilliant to see Manu Tuilagi back playing international rugby after another 18 months away.
While the England fly half situation is attracting all the attention, it’s the lack of new faces elsewhere that should be of more concern. I’m not calling for wholesale changes by any stretch but Alex Dombrandt surely had to start this Test at number eight.
If he isn’t going to start against Tonga, then he’s unlikely to be parachuted in against Australia or South Africa unless there is an injury or Tom Curry has a real nightmare at the base of the scrum.
Sam Simmonds was sent back to Exeter earlier in the week as well but we all know that he struggles to get a look in with Jones. Dombrandt, on the other hand, impressed for England in the summer and has continued to do so for Harlequins.
The balance of the back row is important so I can see why he would go for Courtney Lawes at blindside and Sam Underhill and Curry are both top drawer players but if Dombrandt doesn’t start this week, then when does he?
Smith aside, the only two fresh faces in the starting XV are Freddie Steward and Adam Radwan. Both were impressive against the USA and Canada but we’ll never know if both would have started had the likes of Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Max Malins been fit.
So, this is hardly the bright new dawn that a lot of people were expecting in terms of personnel but we are less than two years away from the 2023 World Cup now and, regardless of who is selected, we need to see England developing a game plan to win it.
All the drama around the number 10 jersey isn’t ideal preparation for a Test match but, in truth, it shouldn’t matter too much against a Tonga side that shipped over 100 points against New Zealand recently and 60 against Scotland at Murrayfield last week.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 5, 2021
It’s almost a no-win situation because anything short of a gargantuan victory will be considered a disappointment but Eddie has talked a good game in regard to changing the style of play after a woeful Six Nations this year and now we have to see that in action.
A double-figure try tally and a much bolder attacking approach will be expected, despite all the upheaval in the build-up, but the real tests lie ahead in the next two weekends to come.
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