England’s 10-12 axis looked set heading into the 2022 Guinness Six Nations, with Marcus Smith and skipper Owen Farrell poised to form the playmaking duo in England’s backline.
But an ankle injury sustained during training for club side Saracens last week has ruled Farrell out of the 2022 Championship, leaving head coach Eddie Jones with a conundrum.
George Ford, a proven commodity with 77 caps under his belt, was called up to the squad to replace Farrell and could conceivably slot straight into the No.10 jersey for the Round 1 contest against Scotland.
Yet Smith had been the presumed 10 before Farrell’s injury, so that could still be the case, even though the identity of the No.12 outside him will have to change.
Before Farrell’s injury, we discussed Jones’s midfield conundrum, so now we look at who we should expect to be England’s starting fly-half.
THE CASE FOR SMITH
Wunderkind Smith was pencilled in as England’s first-choice No.10 for the Guinness Six Nations, a role he filled admirably during the Autumn Nations Series victories over Australia and South Africa, and it’s a logical line of reasoning to suggest that shouldn’t change just because Farrell is now absent.
Jones does seem more comfortable with the idea of Farrell providing a game-managing buffer outside Smith – or nominally outside him anyway, as the skipper often took the ‘fly-half role’ by lining up inside the youngster when they played together against the Wallabies – but Smith excelled without him the following week against the Springboks.
The 22-year-old is perhaps the hottest name in world rugby after a meteoric rise over the past 18 months, as his innate creativity is allied with remarkably smart decision-making for a player so young and his game having no discernible weakness.
He inspired an unfancied Harlequins side to the English Premiership title last season and looked to the manor born in Test rugby during the autumn, having also earned a British & Irish Lions call-up as an injury replacement over the summer.
A mesmerising playmaker with the ball in hand, Smith also earned praise from potential Round 1 opponent, Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg, at the recent 2022 Guinness Six Nations official launch.
Hogg said: “Look, I think he’s an exciting talent, a really exciting talent. We [Exeter Chiefs] played against him a few weeks ago and at times he was winding me up with his eyes and hand signals of what he was going to be doing.
“He was putting me left, right and Chelsea, so I didn’t know what he was going to be doing! He’s a quality player and no doubt he’ll have a big impact on how England do in this campaign.”
Also at the 2022 Championship launch, Jones mooted the idea of moving another creative spark, Henry Slade, from outside centre to inside centre and hinted that Smith was his proposed starting No.10.
“We may move Sladey (Henry Slade) in from 13 to 12,” said Jones.
“It’s important for any 10 in the world whether that’s Smith, whether that’s Finn Russell or Ntamack for France, it’s important that the 12 is a good communicator and takes some of the pressure away from the 10, as well as giving good information and assisting in the defence role.
“So, the Marcus situation is no different from any other team in the world.”
THE CASE FOR FORD
Ford being England’s starting No.10 for the Championship-opening Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland seemed unthinkable when he was left out of their Autumn Nations Series group and then also initially overlooked for the Guinness Six Nations squad.
But Farrell’s unfortunate injury has provided an opportunity and Ford is a known, trusted commodity for Jones – 60 of his 77 caps for his country have come under the Australian after all.
He has never let England down and with an inevitably tight encounter against Scotland at BT Murrayfield first up, his veteran savvy could prove the difference when it comes down to the fine margins.
Plus, and this fact shouldn’t be understated, Ford might just be in the form of his life – with his performances for Leicester Tigers this season since being snubbed for the Autumn Nations Series having been nothing short of sensational.
Truthfully, he has impressed even more than Smith at club level this term, having been the Premiership’s standout No.10 and the beating heart of a Tigers side that have lost just once in all competitions.
A 28-year-old with almost 80 international caps playing the best rugby of his life has to be a tempting proposition when it comes to Calcutta Cup selection.
When Farrell was initially called up for the 2022 Championship, Jones was eager to point out just how vital his game management would be for Smith.
“Owen’s going to be an important player for Marcus,” said Jones at the time. “Marcus could be an absolutely brilliant 10 so he needs to have a 12 next to him that can run the game for him and that’s where Owen is so good.”
If Farrell is ‘so good’ at running a game, Ford might be even better. He is probably the most rugby-intelligent No.10 in the northern hemisphere with his vision, and the decision-making off the back of that, being truly remarkable.
Look at the way he masterminded England’s march down the field in the final minutes 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 try having cleverly dragged the opposition into expecting nothing but crash ball.
When Ford is masterminding England’s attacking play, 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.
It’s the closest thing England have to an NFL quarterback reading a defence and reacting accordingly.
WHAT WILL EDDIE DO?
Trying to guess or second-guess the decisions of Eddie Jones has long been a fool’s errand but the England coach can rest easy in the knowledge that whichever man he selects to start at No.10, he’s getting a high-class option.
All the pre-Championship hints, along with the evidence of the Autumn Nations Series, point to the fact that he wants to see Smith as the man running his attack moving forward.
There’s no doubt Jones would feel more comfortable with Farrell sitting outside the young tyro and his absence is the one factor that truly makes Ford a consideration.
But – with the caveat that Jones could change his mind at any point and render this prediction completely foolhardy – it appears that Smith will be England’s starting fly-half on February 5 when kick-off arrives against Scotland.