The revolution led by Borthwick is about to begin, and the case for starting Smith is very strong.
The world of top-level rugby is constantly evolving. Although it has only been 11 weeks since England received their World Cup bronze medals under the Friday night lights at Stade de France, there are already major changes on the horizon. In the near future, head coach Steve Borthwick will need to select a new group of players who not only have the ability to win Six Nations games this year, but also have the potential to compete for gold in Australia in 2027.
Too often over the years this renewal process has started too slowly. The requisite nettles have not always been grasped, allowing valuable game time and team bonding opportunities to dribble away. Some of the scattergun selections of the Eddie Jones era did little for collective confidence, while the Saracens salary cap saga and Covid pandemic further clouded the Twickenham vision.
What’s next? After a long time, England finally has the opportunity to build a more solid team. Many experienced players will not be able to participate in the next World Cup, but there are young and talented options emerging in most positions. The coach is also very familiar with the current state of the team. The only thing left is to make smart choices when announcing the first squad of the year on Wednesday.
Curiosity? Ambiguity? In an ideal scenario, the Rugby Football Union would employ Claudia Winkleman, move everyone to a remote castle, and put on a grand production. Will loyal players such as Dan Cole, Billy Vunipola, and Joe Marler be cast aside? What is the most effective way to distinguish the heroes from the villains? The more one ponders it, the greater potential there is to create much more thrilling squad announcements.
Perhaps a broader talent search should be conducted. If a 16-year-old can excel in darts at a global level, there’s potential for them to learn how to throw a ball in a lineout. Imagine the competition between potential England captains Jamie “Boy” George and Luke “the Nuke” Littler. If Littler can still hit double top after being pushed to their limits by Aled Walters, England’s strength and conditioning expert, they likely have a promising future in oval-shaped sports.
Currently, Borthwick’s choices are limited to what is available on the shelves. Some aisles have fewer supplies, as more than half of the players who started in the World Cup semi-final against South Africa will not be able to play against Italy in Rome in three weeks. Several players have retired from Test rugby, including Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, and Jonny May. In addition, Owen Farrell is unavailable and there are injuries to Tom Curry, Manu Tuilagi, and Marler among others. As a result, the team lineup will look significantly different.
The most important aspect, however, is not just the names but also the team’s playing style. In a rainy game in Paris, England almost beat the Springboks, displaying impressive determination and effort. The next goal is to incorporate more attacking strategies and promote a bolder, less cautious mentality.
Borthwick has openly admitted that England’s performance in the Six Nations has been disappointing and it is now time for him to make changes. While the approach is focused on gradual improvement rather than drastic change, there needs to be more boldness and less reliance on data in the selection process. It is important to remember that Alex Mitchell, England’s main scrum-half, was not initially chosen for the World Cup squad and only joined the team due to an injury to Jack van Poortvliet. How many other players like Mitchell are being overlooked?
A good few, potentially. Someone like Northampton’s Tommy Freeman looks a serious athlete and has to be involved. Another Saint, George Furbank, must also be pushing hard, with Freddie Steward not necessarily a shoe-in as starting full-back. If England want to inject extra zip into their counterattacking game they need linebreaking threats from deep as much as high ball solidity. Exeter’s Josh Hodge and Sale’s Joe Carpenter are other longer-term options.
Could the tall Steward transform into England’s Jordie Barrett and move to the center position? Regardless, it is time to stop considering the frequently injured Tuilagi as indispensable. Waiting for him has become like watching a Samuel Beckett play about unrequited longing, and his groin injury will likely prevent him from starting the championship anyway. It would be better to call up England’s two most in-form Premiership centers, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade, along with promising 6ft 4in tall Saracen Olly Hartley. Another potential contender could be Northampton’s Fraser Dingwall, who was once captain of Scotland U18.
This leads us to the position of fly-half, where we will see the true workings of Borthwick’s mind. Marcus Smith is a skilled player who has been moved around or made to conform to a tactical system that does not fully suit him. With Farrell currently absent and Ford needing treatment for a knee injury, the argument for selecting Smith as the starting No 10 in the first two matches against Italy and Wales is compelling.
If chosen, he must be given suitable players to release. Cadan Murley, if healthy, is a strong teammate from Harlequins and both he and Ollie Thorley from Gloucester have been unfortunate to not yet play on the left wing despite Elliot Daly’s versatility. There could also be space for either Manny Feyi-Waboso from Exeter or Tom Roebuck from Sale, unless Wales or Scotland beat them to it. This would give Anthony Watson more opportunities to impress for Leicester before the game against Scotland at Murrayfield in the third round.
However, exciting offensive plays cannot occur without fast possession. Injuries have limited England’s choices for a loosehead prop against Italy, but if Ellis Genge is unable to make his comeback, Bath’s Beno Obano could fill the position alongside George and Will Stuart. In the backfield, there may be a temptation to start Maro Itoje, George Martin, and Ollie Chessum together, with Sam Underhill and Ben Earl continuing their successful partnership from the bronze medal victory over Argentina.
England, though, also need more dynamic ball carriers and there must be a temptation to unleash Bath’s Alfie Barbeary off the bench. Borthwick has also already namechecked Exeter’s Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau, while Harlequins’ Cunningham Chandler-South must be a candidate for the England A game against Portugal next month. That fixture should also offer opportunities for Sale’s up-and-coming prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour and Newcastle’s impressive young openside Guy Pepper. New names, exciting fresh possibilities. The future starts here.