Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell: it can be different this time for England
Steve Borthwick would do well to bear in mind that England selection rarely achieves universal approval, but a midfield reunion of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell will have elicited loud groans from certain quarters.
The axis became emblematic of Eddie Jones promising jam tomorrow, because it was expressly stated – time and again – that the playmakers would need to learn on the job. Despite incisive flashes, England’s attack continued to be clunky. Critics are sure to cite Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.
Injuries to Elliot Daly, Henry Slade and Dan Kelly have forced England’s hand somewhat, as Kevin Sinfield hinted on Tuesday. Borthwick, though, has vowed that he will deliver clarity and that the here-and-now will never be eclipsed by distant targets such as the World Cup. Why, then, are Smith and Farrell back together, and why should we expect progress?
Rewinding two months to Jones’ last game in charge, against South Africa at Twickenham, this moment encapsulates the worst facets of England’s back play in 2022. Tom Curry’s carry midfield provides impetus…
…and, even behind their own 10-metre line, the hosts have a huge chance towards the near touchline. Faf de Klerk and Kurt-Lee Arendse have other ideas. The former harries Smith, the latter pressurises Farrell…
…and the attack breaks down with a forward flick:
Manu Tuilagi does backpedal and realign quickly enough and finishes up in front of the ball. Tommy Freeman, who has arced all the way across from the far wing, and Jonny May have acres of space in front of them. But it is no use.
There were many other instances of England’s backs sweeping around rucks to create an overlap, only to get in the way of one another. This is where Nick Evans comes in. Having taken over from Martin Gleeson as attack coach, his remit is to provide direction so that England do not bungle similar chances.
Harlequins were smashed by London Irish on Sunday, yet scored a try that exemplified the Evans way. The key running angle for this break is that of Tom Lawday, the unfussy back-rower. He cuts an out-to-in line off Will Evans as Tomasso Allan and Nick David, set in a stack, circle around:
Watch how it works out:
Evans was asked about the Smith-Farrell axis just days after being appointed by England. He stressed that it could work, provided there was clarity around it. A consistent implication has been that this was lacking from the final days of Jones.
Borthwick’s first selection represents a show of faith that Evans will implement more certainty than Gleeson managed. England are tapping into some existing chemistry here.
Joe Marchant is deployed as a slicing outside centre. Those worrying about his suitability for this role would do well to remember this break against South Africa in 2021…
…and how another brawny midfield, that of France, was troubled in the following Six Nations:
Marchant is also a tough and skilful defender who competes hard at the breakdown. Turning to him, and picking Ollie Lawrence on the bench, gives England two athletic and mobile centres.
Tuilagi burst through New Zealand in November, when Smith released him in the first half. That aside, he was extremely quiet. Although the Smith-Farrell double-act is a symbol of Jones’ tenure, ripping off the band-aid and leaving out Tuilagi is an explicit move beyond it.
Owen Farrell does not supply the carrying threat of André Esterhuizen, which limits England’s capacity to play like Harlequins. Alex Dombrandt, however, can be used as an auxiliary centre – both from all-important lineouts and when running lines like that of Lawday in the clip above. Lewis Ludlam will be leant on as a tenacious tackle-breaker and Ben Curry is a skilful distributor. Expect the latter to wheel away from mauls and service the backline.
Evans has admitted that he will not be able to overhaul structures, so England will probably continue with the familiar set-piece shape that sees Farrell stand at first-receiver with Smith fading behind Marchant and his back-rowers in the hope of some quick ball on the next phase.
Ollie Hassell-Collins should relish surging off the blindside wing from first-phase situations, provided more punch. Max Malins will roam in phase-play and aim to link up with Farrell. One is a debutant, of course, and the other has 10 caps without yet putting his stamp on the Test match scene. Some worry that Malins is short of out-and-out pace. In fairness to Borthwick, who wants to reward domestic form, Malins (nine tries) and Hassell-Collins (eight) are second and joint-third on the Premiership’s list of try-scorers. Only the superb Mateo Carreras is ahead of them.
For all the theorising about attacking plans, England will covet territory and kick a great deal. That approach be complemented by a relatively lightweight yet industrious pack. Ollie Chessum, for example, who has edged out Jonny Hill at lock, is quick on the chase and often hoovers up the ricochets of aerial battles.
Another reservation about using Smith and Farrell in tandem is that Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu, the interchangeable and dynamic centre pairing that Scotland will field, could dominate the gain-line. Curry, Ludlam and Maro Itoje have to step up here. Those three, plus Chessum, are likely to rack up high tackle counts. Dombrandt is an underrated jackaller. A more robust midfield of Farrell, Kelly and Slade might have been the initial plan. Injuries alter things. That is the life of an international head coach.
Smith and Farrell orchestrated a blistering and direct start in Brisbane last July, headlined by Ellis Genge firing through Michael Hooper. They imparted width, with Slade on the field in place of Tuilagi, to rescue themselves against New Zealand in the autumn. Their partnership has not been without encouraging passages.
England are aiming to improve a record of one win in five games against Saturday’s opponents. The last two coaching regimes, spearheaded by Stuart Lancaster and Jones, began with close victories over Scotland. If they are clear rather than cluttered, Smith and Farrell can guide a similar outcome for Borthwick.