Steve Borthwick would do well to keep in mind that the England team rarely achieves universal approval, but a midfield meeting of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell will have elicited loud moans from certain quarters.
The shaft became emblematic of Eddie Jones’ up-and-coming improv tomorrow, because it was expressly said, time and time again, that playmakers would have to learn on the job. Despite the incisive flashes, England’s attack remained clumsy. Critics will surely quote Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.
Injuries to Elliot Daly, Henry Slade and Dan Kelly have forced England’s hand a bit, as Kevin Sinfield hinted on Tuesday. However, Borthwick has vowed that he will deliver clarity and that the here and now will never be overshadowed by distant goals like the World Cup. Why, then, are Smith and Farrell getting back together, and why should we expect progress?
Rewinding two months to Jones’ last game in charge, against South Africa at Twickenham, this moment sums up the worst facets of England’s defensive play in 2022. Tom Curry’s carrying midfield provides impetus…
…and even behind their own 10-meter line, the hosts have a great chance towards the near touchline. Faf de Klerk and Kurt-Lee Arendse have other ideas. The first harasses Smith, the second pressures Farrell…
…and the attack breaks with a forward move:
Manu Tuilagi drops back and realigns quickly enough and ends up in front of the ball. Tommy Freeman, who has fully arched from the far wing, and Jonny May have acres of space in front of them. But it’s no use.
There were plenty of other instances where England’s backs would sweep rucks to create an overlap, only to get in each other’s way. This is where Nick Evans comes in. Having taken over from Martin Gleeson as attacking coach, his mandate is to provide direction so England don’t miss out on similar opportunities.
The Harlequins were crushed by the London Irish on Sunday but scored a try that exemplified Evans’ style. The key running angle for this break is that of Tom Lawday, the back-row single. He cuts an out-to-in line from Will Evans as Tomasso Allan and Nick Evans, positioned in a pile, circle around:
See how it works:
Evans was asked about the Smith-Farrell axis just days after being appointed by England. He stressed that it could work, as long as there was clarity about it. A consistent implication has been that this has been missing since the last days of Jones.
Borthwick’s first pick represents a show of faith that Evans will implement more certainty than Gleeson managed. England is taking advantage of some of the existing chemistry here.
Joe Marchant is deployed as a cutting outside center. Those who worry about his suitability for this role would do well to remember this break against South Africa in 2021…
…and how another muscular midfielder, the one from France, looked uneasy in the following Six Nations:
Marchant is also a tough, skilled defenseman who competes hard on breakdowns. Turning to him, and choosing Ollie Lawrence on the bench, he gives England two athletic and mobile centres.
Tuilagi broke into New Zealand in November, when Smith released him in the first half. Other than that, he was extremely quiet. Although the Smith-Farrell double act is symbolic of Jones’ tenure, removing the Band-Aid and leaving Tuilagi out is an explicit move beyond that.
Owen Farrell does not replace the threat of André Esterhuizen, limiting England’s ability to play as Harlequins. Alex Dombrandt, however, can be used as a backup center, both in bigger lineouts and when he runs lines like Lawday’s in the clip above. He will lean on Lewis Ludlam as a tenacious tackle breaker and Ben Curry is a skilled distributor. He hopes the latter moves away from the mauls and serves the back line.
Evans has admitted he won’t be able to refit the structures, so England will likely continue the familiar set-piece form that sees Farrell stand as first receiver with Smith fading behind Marchant and his back rowers hoping for a quick ball. in the next phase.
Ollie Hassell-Collins should enjoy coming off the blindside wing of early stage situations, provided he has more strength. Max Malins will be roaming around in phase play and aiming to link up with Farrell. One is a rookie, of course, and the other has 10 caps without putting his stamp on the Test match scene yet. Some worry that Malins lacks outright pace. In fairness to Borthwick, who wants to reward home form, Malins (nine tries) and Hassell-Collins (eight) are second and third on the Premiership try-scoring list. They are only preceded by the superb Mateo Carreras.
Despite all the theories about attack plans, England will covet territory and kick a lot. That approach will be complemented by a relatively lightweight but labor-intensive package. Ollie Chessum, for example, who has out-blocked Jonny Hill, is quick on the chase and often sucks up the rebounds from aerial battles.
Another reservation about using Smith and Farrell in tandem is that Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu, the interchangeable and dynamic central pair to play Scotland, could dominate the win line. Curry, Ludlam and Maro Itoje have to step up here. Those three, plus Chessum, are likely to rack up a huge amount of takedowns. Dombrandt is an underrated jackaller. A beefier midfield of Farrell, Kelly and Slade might have been the initial plan. Injuries alter things. Such is the life of an international head coach.
Smith and Farrell orchestrated a blistering, direct start in Brisbane last July, headlined by Ellis Genge firing through Michael Hooper. They spread width, with Slade taking the field in place of Tuilagi, to rescue themselves against New Zealand in the autumn. His association has not been without encouraging passages.
England are aiming to improve on a record of one win in five games against Saturday’s opponents. The last two managerial regimes, led by Stuart Lancaster and Jones, started with close wins over Scotland. If they are clear rather than messy, Smith and Farrell can guide a similar result for Borthwick.