Farrell, Ford or Smith – Who should play fly-half for England?

It is a debate which has invited opinion from rugby aficionados across the globe.

It is a debate which has invited opinion from rugby aficionados across the globe.

Some might say it is the TikTok generation’s answer to Rob Andrew or Stuart Barnes, except there seems to be no clear answer, and in this instance, there is a third candidate to consider.

So are you Owen Farrell, George Ford or Marcus Smith? Are you a combination of a couple? Or do you think there is scope for all three to play a part?

Whatever your leaning, most will agree that the battle for England’s No.10 shirt has never been as competitive.

The discussion is sure to rage on well beyond ‘Le Crunch’, but ahead of Saturday’s fixture at Twickenham, let us consider each candidate’s credentials and examine whether they have the pieces to complete this dizzying puzzle.

The incumbent

If Jonny Wilkinson is the yardstick for England’s best ever fly-half then Owen Farrell cannot be too far off.

That is certainly what the stats will tell you, with Farrell just 38 points away from overtaking Wilkinson as England’s greatest-ever points-scorer.

That tells you just how long Farrell has been at the crux of England’s attack and many would argue that the throne is his for as long as he sees fit.

He really has seen it all. From Premiership and European success with Saracens to Grand Slams and a World Cup final with England. His big game nous is unmatched.

What is more, with England in a transitionary period, why would they want to cast off the man who looks best placed to drag them through to whatever lies ahead?

Steve Borthwick’s decision to insert Farrell as captain was a bold one but it is hard to argue that it was not a sensible one.

Considering Courtney Lawes’ injury record and with Tom Curry sidelined, Borthwick was hardly spoilt for choice and so turned to a man whose emergence he witnessed first-hand at Saracens.

Two different England head coaches have made Farrell their main man, which speaks to how well respected he is by those who know the game best.

But for the first time it seems that the responsibility of marshalling this England team through choppy waters is affecting their talisman, with his goal-kicking for the first three rounds of the Championship down at 44% (Finn Russell, by comparison, is at 73%).

That said, he leads his two challengers in the Premiership kicking charts over the last two seasons, and if you had to back someone to kick the winning conversion in a Guinness Six Nations match, Farrell would be the man for many.

Borthwick is building for the future but with the present in mind, and in a year which culminates with a World Cup, Farrell has the temperament and experience to execute a game plan when it matters.

The forgotten man

Another man Borthwick trusts implicitly is George Ford.

The 29-year-old was the star man when Borthwick’s Leicester Tigers side stormed to the Premiership title in 2022, narrowly missing out on the league’s Player of the Season award.

Had Ford not been in the final phase of his recovery from a long-term Achilles injury, he may have figured in the first three rounds of the Championship.

So while there may be questions over his readiness for games against the world’s top two, with only 151 minutes under his belt so far this term, there can be no disputing his ability at the highest level.

Look at the way he masterminded England’s march down the field in the final knockings of their incredible 38-38 draw with Scotland in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, before picking the perfect moment to dart over for the game-saving score having cleverly fooled the opposition into expecting nothing but crash ball.

Borthwick will be hoping to sucker France and Ireland into an arm wrestle which could see Ford’s veteran savvy prove the difference when it comes down to the fine margins.

With his vision, he was once the most rugby-intelligent fly-half in the northern hemisphere, and he is perfectly comfortable running things off 9 or off 10 – often switching between the two in a single passage of play depending on what the opposition are showing defensively.

He tops Farrell and Smith for tackling success and kicks from open play over the last two domestic campaigns, both of which are traits which Borthwick values highly.

Given the previous success of the Ford-Farrell axis, his return may not even need to be at the expense of his childhood friend.

And if Borthwick wants to emulate the style and success he brought to Leicester, who better to hand the keys to Twickenham than the man who unlocked every defence across the land.

The young pretender

There could be a reprieve for the dual playmaker approach, but not one, you would think, involving Marcus Smith.

Borthwick has reiterated that each team selection has been made with England’s opponents in mind, but one can assume that he would prefer to not be chopping and changing his attack.

So when Smith was left out for Round 2 and the No.10 shirt handed back to Farrell, that felt like the most significant moment of Borthwick’s short spell in charge.

After two fleeting appearances from the replacements bench, Smith was released back to Harlequins during the fallow week and put on a show at Twickenham, grabbing an assist and pre-assist in Quins’ Big Game win over Exeter Chiefs.

His innate creativity is what appeals to so many and England fans will be pointing to what Russell has done north of the border as indication of how a maverick can shine at the highest level.

Conversely, some have made the case that Smith requires a dominant pack to really stamp his mark on proceedings, and that England’s forwards are not yet able to provide him with consistently high-quality front-foot ball.

Smith will say he has the skillset to flourish regardless, and that when the pack is taking a pounding, he is capable of wresting back momentum with moments of magic few else can produce.

Whether he gets the minutes to showcase that ability in an England shirt is another question, and one that is no closer to resolution.