Marcus Smith set for World Cup spot with Steve Borthwick keen on fly-half depth
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Marcus Smith is expected to be named in England’s Rugby World Cup squad after Steve Borthwick indicated he will take three fly-halves to the tournament.
While Smith starts Saturday’s opening Summer Nations Series match against Wales in Cardiff after being picked instead of Owen Farrell and George Ford, he was seen as the most likely of the three playmakers to miss out on selection for France 2023.
England took only two fly-halves to Japan four years ago but Borthwick, who names his 33-man World Cup on Monday, insists the technical nature of certain roles means the team cannot risk being exposed by circumstance.
“Right now I have got a pretty clear framework. In those key positions you need to have depth, three players who can play in that position,” Borthwick said.
“With the number of cards that are issued and HIAs, you need to have depth for those specialist positions.
“If someone does take a head knock you are looking at 12 days out potentially and could miss two Test matches.
“You need to be protected and have the right amount of depth in those specialist positions, which means positional flexibility is really important in your 33.”
Now destined to play in his first World Cup as part of England’s creative brains trust, Smith can approach Saturday’s first of four warm-up Tests unburdened by the need to convince Borthwick that he must be involved this autumn.
Farrell and Ford are more experienced and provide expert game management, but the 24-year-old Harlequins ringmaster offers the type of running threat that can turn a match on its head.
“I rate Marcus exceptionally highly. He has an incredible skill set and an ability to find space. He recognises when there are defenders that he can pick off,” Borthwick said.
“He can either pull them out of the line and put other people through space or find space himself.
“I’ve been hugely impressed with Marcus throughout this camp but also in all my interactions with him.
“He’s a young man who has already achieved a lot in the game, but he’s got even more exciting things to achieve in the future.”
Smith’s last start at fly-half came during a heavy defeat by France in the Six Nations, a tournament that saw him swap in and out of the role with Farrell. He was among a number of players to struggle that day – and he has not forgotten.
“France was a long time ago now and I’ve played a lot of rugby since then,” Smith said.
“It was a tough afternoon and I have learnt a lot of lessons. It has definitely put me in a much better position as a person and on the field as well as a player.
“I would not say I want to rectify it, but I am a very competitive person…”
Danny Care joins Smith at half-back for the visit to the Welsh capital and with no players from Premiership finalists Saracens and Sale present in the starting XV, the side is littered with fringe World Cup contenders.
Ellis Genge captains the team but apart from Care it is an inexperienced line-up that sees fast-rising Northampton flanker Tom Pearson make his debut at openside, with Theo Dan and Tom Willis poised to win their first caps off the bench.
Borthwick and his coaching assistants will hold their final selection meeting on Saturday night before each player is told the following day whether they have made the cut.
“Out of the 33, the vast majority of those positions we are pretty firm on where we are. There is always a few that are written in pencil, as it were,” Borthwick said.
“The players are very clear about where they stand, where they are in the rankings of their position and what they need to do to earn their place in the 33.”
Borthwick’s squad were given a talk by England football coach Gareth Southgate during their World Cup training camp.
“Gareth’s got such a vast experience of tournaments as a player and in management. He shared that with the players,” Borthwick said.
“They enjoyed it, asked him plenty of questions and he was very generous in terms of his lessons and his experiences and things he’s picked up on in the journey.”
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