Marcus Smith’s six-word reply when England asked him to play full-back
Kevin Sinfield has shed light on the revelatory tactical change that England have decided to deploy regarding Marcus Smith following the recent four-game suspension of skipper Owen Farrell following his August 12 red card versus Wales at Twickenham.
George Ford is now occupying the No10 shirt in the enforced absence of Farrell, starting the Summer Nations Series matches versus Ireland and Fiji and most probably the opening Rugby World Cup matches versus Argentina this Saturday in Marseille and against Japan in Nice on September 17.
With Ford – who is finally back in favour as a starter after a two-and-a-half year absence – deemed an out-and-out 10, unlike Farrell who has often run the No12 inside centre channel to accommodate Smith at out-half, England utilised Smith to great effect as a sub full-back in the recent defeat to Fiji.
With England trailing 8-17, he was given 27 minutes in place in first-choice No15 Freddie Steward and he went on to score one try and helped to create another for Joe Marchant.
Although the result was ultimately a 22-30 loss, Steve Borthwick saw enough in that performance to now have Smith training regularly in the full-back role in the lead-up to tnis Saturday’s World Cup opener versus the Pumas.
It won’t be until sometime on Thursday when the exact match day role for Smith will be confirmed, but defence coach Sinfield sang the player’s praises on Tuesday when asked at base camp in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage about the England training ground tactical change with Smith.
“You have all seen what a magician he is with the ball, can step with both feet, quick, can beat players for fun, so why not try and give him a bit more time in a bit more space than what he is getting at 10 and try and get him a little bit wider?
“We have been working on it for some weeks now with him in training and he has been incredible out the backs. To have him in the team available, to have him as we have seen in the last few weeks the option of coming on at either 10 or 15 has been good for us.
“His combination with George as well, and with Owen when he has been alongside him, albeit not in 10/12 but 10/15 just gives us a different way of playing.”
Tell us more. It surely can’t have been easy to get a player who had been the first choice No10 in the final year of the Eddie Jones era to agree to this radical positional switch away from the role that he best knows?
“He embraced it straight away,” reassured Sinfield. “It was a question that was posed to him. ‘Have you played 15?’ His first answer was, ‘No, but I would love to’.”
That enthusiastic response thrilled Sinfield and the rest of Borthwick’s England management. “The response was music to our ears because you are looking for tactical variation in the players we select.
“Then when you are putting the team together and then the bench understanding who can move where, understanding that we started to utilise some of this in training long before Anthony Watson had to pull out, he possibly could have been an option for us as well at full-back, so it gives us a bit more variation.
“So the initial answer from him was wonderful but we have worked on it in training and we have seen him play there. If through running somebody there in training there were any doubts we wouldn’t have continued with it. I am confident.”
Sinfield insisted having the small-in-stature Smith at full-back compared to the hulking Steward would not require a change to the England defensive system. He also took issue when it was implied that Smith was surely too small to be a full-back.
“You don’t have to be tall and big to tackle, do you? Have you seen Rob Burrow tackle? No, we haven’t changed (our defence system), to answer your question.
“It would be crazy of us to put Marcus in the team and not try and get the ball in his hands and give him space to attack. He has a different attacking threat to Fred. As you rightly point out, Fred is 6ft 4, 105 kilos, so he brings a different threat to Marcus when he carries the ball.
“You guys have seen Marcus for some time and seen what he can do with the ball, he is a magician. It brings something different, it gives us that variation. Depending on the centre combinations we put together, having that extra ball player coming from 15 can help us.
“Fred can do some of that but actually at 6ft 4, 105 kilos, you would probably more want him to carry the ball hard at the line. So it gives us some variation.
“It’s great to have it. It’s understanding that we pick the team that we think gives us the best chance of winning against the opposition and how they set up, but to have that variation in our team, in our 23, is really important.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 5, 2023
Sinfield came to the England assistant’s job via Leicester where he also worked under Borthwick, including the year when they won the Gallagher Premiership title with Ford as their No10 and Freddie Burns, another out-half, often getting a run at full-back even though Steward – as with England – was also the first-choice No15.
“Freddie probably had more of a history of playing 15 if I am right, so I don’t think from all accounts Marcus has played a lot of rugby there. But like I said through training, you have got to remember these guys are training against the best we have and have done for the last 12 weeks and have been competing against each other – so it’s not like he has played at U15s and we have just decided to give him a run-out.
“He has been training with some real quality against Fred, alongside Owen, alongside George, alongside some centre pairings that we have mixed and matched and took a good look at and he has been magnificent.”
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