How Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield will resolve the Owen Farrell-Marcus Smith debate
Has Kevin Sinfield given the game away? England’s defence coach was just finishing an account of his 90-minute conversation with Owen Farrell when he dropped a major selection hint.
“I think it’s quite refreshing that we've got a 10 who wants to put his body on the line and wants to be physical,” Sinfield said of Farrell.
“I think it’s a great message for our younger players around the country. He wants to tackle. The challenge for us – across the squad – is to ensure that we don't cross that line.”
Last Wednesday, hours before Sinfield met up with Farrell, Nick Evans had stressed that there was no reason why the England skipper could not continue at inside centre in a midfield alliance with Marcus Smith.
That may remain an option within a game – as a pair of distributors, Smith and Farrell were integral to the three-try burst that salvaged a draw against New Zealand in November – but this was an extremely strong hint that England’s skipper will start at fly-half against Scotland.
On a superficial level, this can reinforce a sense of separation from the previous regime era. But it also provides greater clarity as well: an oft-stated aim of England’s new figurehead. George Ford and Farrell shared a telepathic understanding that had developed over a decade and a half. Smith and Farrell were gelling on the hoof, with one eye on the future, and England suffered.
Just as he is eager to mine the Premiership for in-form players, Steve Borthwick will want to tap into the most effective facets of the league’s best sides. Nick Tompkins, overlooked by Jones and now a Wales international, is a vital midfield glue-man for Saracens. Manu Tuilagi has looked more comfortable at 12 for Sale Sharks with Sam James outside him.
Evans and Smith, the coach and conductor of Harlequins’ attack, call upon André Esterzhuizen. Under Borthwick and Sinfield, Leicester Tigers tended to field flinty centres and use a second distributor at full-back when necessary. Indeed, as Sinfield later highlighted, Charlie Atkinson wore 15 for Friday’s victory in Clermont.
All of this bodes well for Dan Kelly. After extolling the complementary virtues of Farrell, Ellis Genge and Courtney Lawes, Sinfield expressed his desire to mould new defensive leaders.
“Leadership has changed,” he explained. “It’s less one guy banging a drum. It’s a group of leaders. Hopefully we’ll have a number of guys across the team to put their hand up for us to lead our defence. At this stage I have some idea who that may be, but I think it would be unfair until I see them in action in the coming couple of weeks.”
Kelly, an influential organiser for Leicester, could be one of those new leaders. Pressed specifically on the potential of the 21-year-old, who won a single cap against Canada in 2021 and is regarded as a defensive lieutenant at Tigers, Sinfield conceded that the former Ireland age-grade international would benefit from familiarity upon returning to the England fold.
“He's really improved his game and I’d like to think the fact he's experienced an England camp previously will help him,” said Sinfield of Kelly. “And, when he comes in this time, he'll understand the vast majority of what Steve and I have tried to do with the other coaches. I'm really delighted that he gets another shot.”
One week, never mind a year, is proving to feel like an age in rugby union. Because of that, it is jarring to recall that the last Six Nations featured England centre partnerships such as Henry Slade and Elliot Daly as well as Slade and Joe Marchant. Borthwick, unsurprisingly, has assembled a squad that provides better scope for midfield balance.
Tuilagi and Kelly would appear to be vying to start at 12 with Slade and Marchant – and perhaps Daly, though he could be shifted into the back three – potential 13s. Though Farrell could move wider upon the introduction of another fly-half from the bench, that leaves him and a pair of Smiths, Marcus and Fin, as the fly-halves.
Sinfield was picked up on his reference to Farrell as a 10. Insisting that he was not “trying to dodge the question”, the 42-year-old acknowledged that “there’s going to be some combinations to discuss within our team”.
“The biggest thing I gleaned from being in similar position as a player was to be as unselfish you can be and to start from a position of giving and sharing,” Sinfield added. “And from what I can make out of our 10s so far, they want to do that.
“I'm really excited by Owen, Marcus and Fin. There’s a number of other 10s who are banging on the door at the minute – George Ford's not far away [from recovering from injury]. Charlie Atkinson played at full-back on the weekend, so there are a number of great options. But, ultimately, the guys are going to have to give me a bit more.”
The coming weeks may not solve England’s perennial midfield conundrum, but Borthwick and Sinfield, with the guidance of Evans, will bring a definitive template.