Andy Goode: I don't agree with Borthwick's boldest selection call
Steve Borthwick has made some bold calls with his first England team selection but sticking with the Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell combination is still the biggest.
I don’t agree with it and think Farrell is a fly half and one whose form deserves being given the number 10 jersey but hopefully the pair will finally be given the tools and licence to flourish alongside one another. That includes the Saracens man playing like an inside centre.
He might not be able to crash the ball up like Andre Esterhuizen does for Harlequins but if the combination is to succeed, Farrell does need to provide a ball carrying option for Smith at times and he needs to think more like a number 12.
It’s hard to criticise Farrell for thinking like a fly half when he’s one of the most successful players England have ever had in that position but Smith needs to be able to drive the attack and maybe the pieces are in place outside the 10/12 axis for him to do that.
He has his clubmates, who will instinctively know his game inside out, around him in the key positions with Alex Dombrandt at number eight and Joe Marchant at outside centre and, crucially, Nick Evans is the man overseeing England’s attacking game now.
The Harlequins and now England assistant coach has spoken a lot about clarity and players understanding their roles and that is what has been missing in the eight Tests we’ve seen Smith and Farrell start together, with the offensive side of the game often looking muddled.
The absence of Manu Tuilagi has made some waves and there’s no doubt the opposition players will be relieved not to have to consider the prospect of him running down their channel but Marchant’s relationship with Smith might just be the key to make things click.
Tuilagi does often draw in several defenders at once, leaving space for others to operate in, and the lack of a big ball carrier at inside centre as well means there might be an onus on Ollie Hassell-Collins and Freddie Steward as the more sizeable members of the backline to get more involved and get England over the gainline.
Marchant didn’t think he’d ever play for his country again under Eddie Jones, to the extent that he’s signed a deal to join Stade Francais and end his international career next season, but his form for Quins has been excellent and he deserves another shot.
Borthwick was at pains to point out this week that Farrell has played at centre in some of the best performances for England and the British & Irish Lions but none of those have been in the last few years and I just think it’s a bit much to be drawing on the 2019 World Cup or the 2017 Lions tour when it comes to selection.
We’ll never know whether this was always the plan or if it’s Plan B because of the injury to Dan Kelly, who was integral to Leicester’s success under Borthwick last season, but this is the ninth time Smith and Farrell are starting alongside one another and they have to start firing soon or it’ll be an experiment consigned to the scrap heap.
Elsewhere, the make-up of the back row is the interesting with Ben Earl again unlucky to miss out after being arguably the best player in the Premiership over the past year or so but club form is being rewarded.
In the absence of his brother, Ben Curry has been tearing up trees for Sale and has earned the opportunity to add to the one cap he won against the USA 18 months ago and Lewis Ludlam has really developed his game in a leadership role at Northampton.
With Ollie Chessum alongside Maro Itoje in the second row, it’s more of an orthodox looking back five in the forwards as well with no square pegs in round holes.
Borthwick has been trying to portray his excitement this week but all the focus is on the players and he has spoken about allowing them to play to their strengths and do what they do for their clubs.
That’s applicable to all positions but most of the spotlight is always going to be on the number 10 jersey and even more so when you pick two of them together in the same team and they haven’t yet hit it off.
As a fly half, you have to read the game, manage it and implement the plan but Smith’s main strength is playing with freedom and with his head up, not being afraid to get his goosestep out and finding often unconventional ways to put others through holes.
Borthwick may not always look like the most excited figure but he’s right, there’s a huge amount of excitement around this Calcutta Cup match. It’s mouthwatering enough most years now Scotland are so competitive in it but the intrigue around how England are going to play adds even more appeal.
You’ve got a sprinkling of Leicester players and a lot of people assuming that Borthwick will adopt a similar style to the one he did at Tigers with plenty of kicking but with a core of Saracens men and then some Quins in key positions in attack.
It’ll be up to the players to shine at Twickenham but there’s no greater man for detail than Borthwick so they should be well prepared and you don’t have to look any further than his right-hand man for motivation.
You don’t need any extra incentive when it comes to playing the Auld Enemy but Kevin Sinfield is about the most inspirational bloke on the planet at the moment and players are sure to want to run through brick walls for him.
Scotland have had their hands on the Calcutta Cup in four of the last five years, after a period where they’d won it just three times in 27 years, so I genuinely think they should be arriving as favourites.
That feeling of a fresh regime is an intangible that adds something to England’s cause, though, and Twickenham can’t get much lower and more subdued than it was at the end of the autumn. Borthwick has spoken about reconnecting with fans and getting them excited again and you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
While I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t think the Smith/Farrell axis works, although I hope to be proven wrong this weekend, I just think England might have enough to get over the line and I’m going for a home win by three.
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Nice one.Go to comments
good to see a positive artcle negativity has a habit of compounding on itself bring on 2024Go to comments