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FEATURE How the selection of Ollie Lawrence has 'solved' England's No 10 conundrum

How the selection of Ollie Lawrence has 'solved' England's No 10 conundrum
1 year ago

At times over the past few weeks, you can picture Marcus Smith holding the skull and agonising his way through the famous soliloquy of the young Danish Prince from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “To be, or not to be, that is the question—Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them?” Well, almost.

There has certainly been hand-wringing and soul-searching aplenty over the depreciating value of the youthful Harlequins’ outside half, which has been in free fall since Eddie Jones was handed his cards last December.

It has not excluded him from Steve Borthwick’s plans entirely. After a brief demotion, he has been reinstated in the latest 36-man England squad to play France at Twickenham. But the signs of a change in the pecking order at number 10 are palpable.

First, Smith was dropped from the starting XV after one Six Nations outing in the company of Owen Farrell against Scotland, with ‘Faz’ replacing him the next weekend versus Italy. Then Borthwick’s long-term navigator at Leicester, George Ford, was recalled to national colours as soon as he returned from a long-term injury.

With Farrell and Ford likely to remain the top two starters at number 10 in Steve Borthwick’s World Cup thinking, it is fair to say that there is still a measure of existential angst about where Marcus Smith fits into his vision of how England can play the game at the World Cup.

Smith Farrell England Russell verdict
Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith have both worn the No 10 jersey for England during this year’s Six Nations. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Initially, Smith was released from the England training group on the Tuesday after the match against Wales in Cardiff, with George Ford being retained. Smith’ halfback partner at the Stoop, Danny Care, explained the conundrum:

“Should he be getting more game time for England? Yeah, I think more than 14 seconds [off the bench versus Wales]. I do think he should be getting more. But it’s tough, it’s tough obviously on Marcus at the moment.

“Steve [Borthwick] picked Owen Farrell as captain, so it’s obviously going to be very hard for him to then take Owen off. I think everyone would have liked to see a bit more of Marcus in that second half especially. I think the game opened up a fair bit.

“It went a bit stagnant, and I felt like it needed a bit of a lift. And there’s probably no one better than Marcus to do that. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a big opportunity. But you know, I’ve got no doubts, that boy is going to play a very, very big part in England’s success over the next few years.”

Danny Care was careful not to state that Farrell and Smith can play in the same midfield axis at 10 and 12 together, and he is right.

After Smith responded with an outstanding display against Exeter Chiefs in the fallow week between the third and fourth round of the Six Nations, Danny Care was back on the ball again:

“If [Marcus] keeps performing like that he can’t be ignored for too long. I can completely understand what Steve has tried to do over a short space of time. Get the basics done incredibly well, and pick a team he probably knows. He knows Owen inside out and Owen’s a brilliant player. It’s hard to not pick Owen. He’s that good of a leader and he drives everything.

“I still think the two can work in tandem and you can get the best performance out of the 10 shirt with either of them starting, or either of them coming off the bench. It just depends which team you’re playing. I’m not the England coach but I think Marcus has done everything he could to keep knocking on the door. When he’s on your team you’ve got a better chance than when he’s not.”

Danny Care was careful not to state that Farrell and Smith can play in the same midfield axis at 10 and 12 together, and he is right.

On attack, it looked very much like the dominant Farrell personality was drowning Marcus out. On defence, the two did not present either a coordinated front in the centre of the field from set-piece or resolute cover in the backfield after a break had been made against Scotland:

In the first example, the pair are beaten by a Finn Russell pass, in the second by a power run to the corner from Duhan van der Merwe. So, let’s shelve all thoughts of the pair representing the Red Rose in the same midfield again. It becomes a case of either Farrell, or Ford, or Smith – and the reason for that is the rapid emergence of Bath centre Ollie Lawrence to fill the problematic spot at number 12.

It is a natural arrangement whoever fills the number 10 position. Owen Farrell plays with Nick Tompkins alongside him at Saracens, George Ford had Dan Kelly as his minder at Welford Road, and 6-foot-5-inch, 115 kilo Springbok giant Andre Esterhuizen takes Marcus Smith under his imposing wing at the Stoop. All three can play the position with rugged power on both sides of the ball.

If you want to kick the ball as much as Steve Borthwick did in his time as Leicester head coach, there is simply no need for a second playmaker at inside centre; it would be much better to select a number 12 who can run with power, bail out the number 10 out when he receives slow ball, and perform all the dirty chores that have become a feature of the position in the modern game.

The Monsters of the Midway who now inhabit the midfield waters at Test level have many of the qualities associated with supplementary wing forwards. Ask Jonathan Danty of France, or Robbie Henshaw or Bundee Aki of Ireland. They will tell you. The glamour of the spot has been largely been replaced by some very hard maintenance of the nuts and bolts at breakdown time.

Ollie Lawrence has shown already in the 2023 Six Nations that he possesses many of the characteristics required. He can run with power, breach the advantage line and allow the No 10 to put his feet up and light his pipe on an armchair ride:

Runs which went for five metres in the first half became clean breaks in the second period.

The third-round game versus Wales revealed unexpected attacking finesse in Lawrence’s play:

It is the view from behind the posts that illustrates the subtlety of Ollie Lawrence’s support angle after Max Malins makes the initial break from scrum:

First, he runs a support line to take him inside the man marking him (Welsh centre Mason Grady), then he swings back out at the last moment to give Max Malins a target for the pass. Once he has been tackled, there is no question of Wales robbing him of the ball on the deck in preparation for the scoring phase.

At Cardiff the essential upgrade from the Smith-Farrell axis was visible on defence. Counter-rucks which inflicted significant pain in the first period created concrete turnovers in the second:

There is no way that Wales No 11 Louis Rees-Zammit is going to stop Lawrence becoming master of the breakdown space in that second clip. He plays from such a low centre of gravity that reloads and second involvements take no time at all:

No sooner has Lawrence made the previous tackle than he is back on his feet and disrupting Wales scrum-half Tomos Williams, and generating a pilfering opportunity for Lewis Ludlam. Those double involvements became a regular theme of the action:

In the first clip, Lawrence completes the tackle, competes at the ruck and reloads into the defensive line while the Welsh player who cleaned him out is still on the floor. In the second, he gets on the ball at two successive rucks, finally winning a turnover only five metres out from the England goal-line. Those double involvements are priceless. It was no coincidence that Owen Farrell also had three turnovers on defence with Lawrence alongside him.

England’s midfield play with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade at numbers 12 and 13 is surprisingly flexible. The two swap positions seamlessly on both sides of the ball. The first England try had Slade running the inside decoy with Lawrence in outside support, and the formation was the same for the score that ended Welsh interest in proceedings:

It is the same on defence: Lawrence typically defends inside the Exeter man, but the two can switch spots without losing effectiveness:

The Shakespearean character of the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell debate has overshadowed the real strides England have made by introducing Bath’s Ollie Lawrence at number 12. He plays outside Farrell, but his presence might just make Smith more viable as an alternative 10. He can play 12 and he can operate at 13. He can run with power, he shows unexpected nuance running lines on attack and he can do the dirty work as an auxiliary open-side flanker.

Whoever he picks at number 10, Steve Borthwick has made them better players by choosing the right man alongside them.


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