England followers who thought, or possibly hoped, the beginning of the Steve Borthwick period would spell the top of the seemingly doomed Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell mixture that got here to outline the demise of Eddie Jones’s tenure will likely be in for a shock when seeing the beginning XV for Saturday’s Six Nations opener towards Scotland.
There, at fly half, is the identify Marcus Smith, with Owen Farrell within the No 12 jersey exterior him. Cue mass panic and social media hand-wringing over the return of this most unpopular of experiments.
Smith-Farrell was the 10-12 axis that introduced down the Jones regime. It was purported to be a cheat code in assault, a manner of compressing two elite fly halves into the workforce as a double-playmaker pivot to create an unpredictable, unstoppable power. It unequivocally failed.
The autumn Tests simply gone noticed Jones’s ‘unicorn’ trio of Smith, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi lastly line up because the 10-12-13 alignment, with the potential of England’s revolutionary attacking construction set to be lastly unlocked.
Instead, Argentina claimed a primary win at Twickenham for 16 years, an inconceivable, harum-scarum comeback noticed an entertaining, if unconvincing, draw snatched with the All Blacks earlier than a South Africa aspect shorn of their European-based gamers as a result of recreation falling exterior the official Test window outclassed their hosts for a easy victory.
It capped a 2022 the place England gained simply 5 of 12 Tests – their worst return since 2008. They scored solely 27 tries in these 12 matches and, if you happen to exclude the runaway victories over Japan and Italy, then it was a meagre 15 tries in 10 video games towards top-class opposition. Those performances received Jones the sack.
Borthwick was ushered in as the brand new head coach after the previous England captain throughout his taking part in days pulled Leicester Tigers from the doldrums to brilliantly win the Gallagher Premiership final yr, having beforehand impressed as England forwards coach beneath Jones. He’s a person praised for his organisational expertise and meticulous consideration to element, whereas bringing the equally-respected Kevin Sinfield with him from Leicester as defence coach is seen as a coup. In brief, optimism abounds at Twickenham as soon as extra because the Six Nations looms.
But Borthwick has instantly taken a chance by sticking with the Smith-Farrell partnership that’s so extensively scorned and the grumbles round Twickenham will rapidly intensify if the Calcutta Cup begins to slide by their fingers because of a misfiring assault.
In equity, this might not be the brand new coach’s first alternative. His hand has been barely compelled because of a spate of accidents within the centres – any of Dan Kelly, Henry Slade and Elliott Daly would in all probability have began had they been match, permitting Farrell to maneuver to fly half, the place he has so excelled for Saracens this season, and Smith to drop to the bench.
He has additionally opted towards together with Tuilagi within the matchday 23, preferring the mobility of Joe Marchant at exterior centre to Tuilagi’s bulk, which not less than removes one-third of the 10-12-13 axis that so struggled towards Argentina, the All Blacks and the Springboks a number of months in the past.
Borthwick will even hope that the appointment of Nick Evans as assault coach on secondment from Harlequins – the place he commonly works with Smith and Marchant – can enhance England’s flailing scoring makes an attempt. Quins are famend for his or her vibrant, expansive rugby and will probably be fascinating to see how this dovetails with Borthwick’s extra measured, kicking and territory-based recreation that he employed at Tigers.
Upon being appointed final month, Evans was actually fast to recommend the Smith-Farrell combo shouldn’t be a busted flush, whereas he additionally threw some not-so-subtle shade on the earlier regime.
“There’s no reason why they can’t play together,” Evan insisted. “But you have to be very clear about what you are trying to achieve, how you are doing this, what the detail looks like. Once everyone is clear on that then you can go through with it.
“Some of the feedback was that maybe that [clarity] wasn’t there, so maybe there was a bit of a crossover. It’s just about making sure that you’re very clear on roles and responsibilities.”
An England assault having a transparent understanding of the right way to play would make a refreshing change to current months and a brand new period deservedly brings renewed hope, because the all-important World Cup looms on the horizon. They will rightly be favourites to beat Scotland on dwelling turf this weekend, regardless of only one win from the earlier 5 fixtures between the edges.
But by turning to a play-making pivot that many would say has already failed, Borthwick has left himself large open to criticism if his gamble fails.