CHRIS FOY: England boss Steve Borthwick must throw caution to the wind and try maverick Marcus Smith at full back and play George Ford and Owen Farrell at 10 and 12 in Chile clash
England are facing a playmaker dilemma this week so here is a potential solution – start all of them at once against Chile; George Ford at 10, Owen Farrell at 12 and Marcus Smith at 15.
Why not? The next World Cup, Pool D fixture, in Lille on Saturday, is one that the national team should win with a bonus point. So if ever there was a time for a bold, unorthodox plan, this is it.
Of course, it is a hypothetical scenario which surely will not come to pass. But after England fans watched a clunky attacking performance against Japan and grew exasperated by the non-spectacle until Smith was involved in a last-quarter surge, it is worth considering, even as a one-off.
What it comes down to is whether England want to push towards what is regarded as their ceiling at this World Cup; a place in the semi-finals, or try to find another layer which may turn them into a threat against the title favourites; France, South Africa and Ireland. One of those top teams will be lying in wait in the last four – if England reach that stage – with a varied, deadly repertoire.
New Zealand have embraced this daring selection option in the last year. They have been highly effective with Richie Mo’unga at 10, Jordie Barrett at 12 and Beauden Barrett at 15. Having multiple distributors, decision-makers and canny kickers has allowed them to torment defences who don’t know where the next wave of trouble is coming from.
Picking an England back line of this type would be unusual but not unprecedented, and the man in charge of the Red Rose attack acknowledged that there is no reason why it couldn’t be an option. When asked about a three-playmaker model, Richard Wigglesworth said: ‘It’s not unthinkable, but it is about what else is around them.
‘If we have absolute runners around them and that is their skill-set, we want to up-skill as many guys as possible to see the picture early and be able to execute things. So I don’t think it is unthinkable, but you have to have a balance around them. We also have Elliot Daly who can run and pass as well, but it is about making the balance right. If you do that, it is not unthinkable.’
Wigglesworth also praised the impact Smith has made at full-back since he was first deployed there off the bench in Dublin last month, adding: ‘I think he’s been really smart with how he has done it. One, he wants the ball. He is desperate to get his hands on the ball first and foremost.
‘But he’s been really smart with where he positions himself, how he gets it, and hasn’t tried to play like a 10 out wide. He’s gone, “Get me the ball, and then I’ll play on”. Then he’ll use the capability he’s got with his feet and his acceleration.
‘It’s really testament to him about how smart he is. He could have been a bit lost having not played there much but he is not. He worked out the best places for him to get the ball to have a positive impact on the team. I’ve been really impressed with him.’
No-one is suggesting that England can create the same intricate attacking shape and cohesion as the All Blacks have often produced in the last 12 months, at such short notice, but surely it is worth a try when the result is a foregone conclusion? If instead, Borthwick picks Ford and Farrell together but Steward at full-back again, he won’t learn much that he doesn’t know, and is unlikely to gain a new dimension. If he picks Farrell at 10 and rests Ford, he will give his captain precious game-time but not build anything meaningful for later rounds.
After two fixtures in their campaign, the one certainty regarding the playmakers is that Ford has done enough to prove he must wear the No 10 shirt when the tough assignments come, as they will. He is the smart conductor that the national team need, starting against Samoa in a tricky pool finale, then against either Australia, Fiji or Wales in a quarter-final. He has played with real authority in adversity and his place at fly-half must be assured now. Borthwick would change that at his peril.
Farrell has not been missed in terms of running the show or driving displays of English defiance. They have coped just fine with Ford at 10 and Lawes as captain. But, the midfield partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant didn’t do enough in the largely laboured win over Japan to ring-fence their alliance. There is scope to add Farrell, with Tuilagi in the wider centre channel. Marchant could even come into contention on the wing.
But Smith impressed again in a cameo at full-back, so it makes sense to push ahead with that promising experiment. Let him start there. Switch Freddie Steward to the wing, to retain his physical presence – and his aerial prowess at the back when England are defending. But when they are poised to launch attacks, Smith can occupy the central position, scan and pop up wherever he can do most damage.
Of course, Borthwick will be minded to stick with a narrow game-plan, knowing that his team are forging the spirit, commitment and patient organisation needed to finish top of this pool and even see off any of their potential quarter-final opponents. But it won’t be enough to challenge the very best. The head coach, deep down, must know that.
So if he is prepared to countenance a new ploy proposed in the summer by Kevin Sinfield, it makes sense to give it proper time to knit together and see how it functions. If there is a chance that the three-playmaker model can work, give it a whirl when – relatively speaking – the pressure is off.
There will be a fear of opposition teams targeting Smith with high kicks. Granted, that is bound to happen. But it can happen in the 65th minute, as much as it can in the first, And imagine if those kicks are not perfectly judged. Imagine him running the ball back with space to cut loose and showcase that deadly hitch-kick acceleration.
Smith can lurk behind the other playmakers and pods of forwards – primed to make outside breaks. Just imagine it; England making outside breaks. That alone would be enough to flummox any of their rivals.
What is more realistic? The likely sequence would involve Farrell being given a start at fly-half, then he and Ford resurrecting their 10-12 axis against Samoa, to sharpen up before a quarter-final. In due course, England’s back line is likely to feature those two together, with Tuilagi wearing 13, Marchant in the mix for a wing role and Steward remaining at full-back. Smith is almost certain to be regarded as a ‘finisher’ off the bench; someone who can come on to run rings around tiring defences.
But if England have designs on something more here than a gallant but limited, near-miss campaign, they should consider the three-playmaker gamble against Chile. The worst that can happen is that they realise it doesn’t quite work and fall back on tried-and-trusted alternatives.
But if it does spark the attack into life, it could turn Borthwick’s team into genuine contenders at this tournament – and swiftly turn public apathy into adulation.