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Four England talking points after Steward-less team named for Scotland

By Liam Heagney
Freddie Steward after England's recent win over Wales (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick restored his ‘tinkerman’ role on Thursday, changing a third of the starting England line-up to visit Scotland following their February 10 Guinness Six Nations win at home to Wales.

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That round two fixture garnered headlines as the head coach named an unchanged XV from one game to the next for the first time since Eddie Jones was at the helm for the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.

Once it was confirmed last Sunday evening that Alex Mitchell had sustained a knee injury putting him out of contention, though, England were never in a position to field the same XV for the third match in succession.

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However, rather than limit his alterations to that one enforced swap which sees the veteran Danny Care promoted from the bench to start and Ben Spencer included as this weekend’s scrum-half bench cover, Borthwick opted for four other changes.

Both the starting props have changed, Ellis Genge and Dan Cole earning promotion at the expense of benched duo Joe Marler and Will Stuart, while Ollie Lawrence got the not ahead of Manu Tuilagi to eclipse Fraser Dingwall.

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Most surprising of all, though, was Borthwick’s decision to axe Freddie Steward and award George Furbank his first cap in two years. That switch wasn’t on the radar at all. Here are the RugbyPass talking points from the England selection to take on Scotland:

The Freddie axe gamble
One of the most repeated observations coming out of the round two win over Wales was how Steward eventually bossed the aerial duel at Twickenham, ensuring England came from 6-14 down to clinch a 16-14 win. His reward? A tough conversation with the management where he learned that he won’t be involved at BT Murrayfield. No one saw that coming.

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As regular a pick that Steward has been, however, it’s not his first bad brush with Borthwick. Just 19 weeks ago in Aix-en-Provence, he was on the receiving end of similarly bad news, getting told he was surplus to requirement for the Rugby World Cup quarter-final that Sunday versus Fiji in Marseille.

The then 23-year-old sucked up the heartbreak, bouncing back rejuvenated in Paris the following weekend as the starting No15 against the Springboks. That selection was accommodated by an injury to Marcus Smith, who had shown his ability in the full-back role earlier in the tournament.

The axing of Steward for the quarter-final wasn’t a massive shock given the evidence of the experimenting Smith having form in the backfield. However, this naming of Furbank in place of Steward for championship round three in Edinburgh is a jolting development.

While Furbank has upped his consistency at Northampton, he hasn’t played at Test level since 2022 when a decision by Jones to start him at full-back away to France was offset by the naming of Steward on the wing.

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There is no such Steward safety net on this occasion as Borthwick has stuck with Tommy Freeman and Elliot Daly as his starting wings and omitted the Leicester player from the match day 23. It’s a gutsy call.

It doesn’t mean that Steward won’t be back involved for the March 9 game at home to Ireland – Borthwick is very much a game-to-game selector and what the Irish bring in the air via Hugo Keenan and co would very be very much up Steward’s street given his display against the Welsh.

But what intrigue it makes for this weekend. Leaving Steward out and picking Furbank to start against the Scots is a massive decision by the head coach. An England win and Borthwick’s reputation for being a canny selector will be hugely enhanced.

If Furbank doesn’t fire, however, and England blow their best start to the championship since 2019, the finger of blame will be directed at Borthwick.

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It’s Ollie’s time, not Manu’s
Steward is in good company in not getting selected for this weekend. Feelers had been sent out pumping the Manu Tuilagi air, yet he hasn’t made the Murrayfield cut either.

Just the other day we had assistant Kevin Sinfield ‘backing’ the fit-again pair Tuilagi and Lawrence to kick the Scotland door down with their power, yet when England confirmed their team at 3pm on Thursday, Tuilagi’s name was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, Lawrence was the chosen one, called on to partner Henry Slade in midfield rather than combine with Tuilagi, something that had only happened once before under Borthwick – the Summer Series Twickenham loss to Fiji last August.

Despite scoring the vital try against the Welsh, rookie Dingwall was always in the crosshairs to relinquish his recent No12 spot as defensively he endured too many leaky moments in London and also in Rome the previous weekend.

But it is a massive show of faith in Lawrence stepping up given the pattern of selection that occurred in 2023. In the three Summer Series matches after the World Cup squad had been picked and across the seven England games at France 2023, Tuilagi was a midfield starter in eight of those 10 fixtures.

His partners? The now unavailable Joe Marchant on six occasions, Owen Farrell once, and Lawrence. On the two occasions that Tuilagi wasn’t there, Borthwick went with starting partnerships of Lawrence with Marchant in the London warm-up against Wales and Lawrence with Daly in the finals win over pool minnows Chile.

Having excelled over the winter with Bath until shipping a hip injury at Toulouse in January, this is a perfect opportunity for the 24-year-old Lawrence to rekindle his combo with the World Cup-axed Slade, which had a three-game run in the 2023 Six Nations with Tuilagi suspended.

It looked decent in Wales, average at home to Italy and the less we say about the punishment beating inflicted by France the better.

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Magic man Martin
One name RugbyPass was delighted to see on the England team sheet was George Martin. He illustrated what a class act he is in the World Cup semi-final against the Springboks, a match in which he was a surprise starter at the expense of Ollie Chessum, who had been the preferred partner for Maro Itoje until that point.

Injuries affected Martin’s winter, but he is finally primed to do a job for England – albeit from the bench as Borthwick ignored the temptation to start him as happened in Paris 18 weeks ago.

Finishing matches well has become a thing in this post-Jones era, with England winning the second half 11-0 versus Wales after the previous weekend’s 13-7 second-period ‘win’ in Italy.

That’s quite the improvement from losing four of the five second halves during Borthwick’s maiden 2023 championship. The English hope will be that Martin can very generously add whenever he gets thrown into the fray.

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Spencer’s incredibly long wait
Hats off to Ben Spencer. When he was dramatically called up the week of the 2019 World Cup final to provide bench cover to Ben Youngs in the absence of the injured Willi Heinz, he would have imagined he would have stayed involved given he was just 27 at the time with heaps of rugby ahead of him.

That wasn’t what turned out, however, and it’s only now, 52 months on from that final in Yokohama, that he has finally been presented with the opportunity to add to his meagre four-cap career haul.

It has taken an injury to Mitchell to get him into the match day 23 but it’s a well-deserved bench inclusion for a player who has been one of Bath’s best signings in recent years, giving them an edge that is coming to full fruition this season with Finn Russell pairing up with him at The Rec.

A curiosity about Spencer’s selection ahead of Harry Randall, who was released to the A team versus Portugal, is that he has yet to be on a winning side with England. So far, his record reads L3 and D1, the draw coming in that nightmare second half in 2019 when the Scots came from 0-31 down in London to secure a 36-all result.

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