How do you solve a problem like England’s midfield selection conundrum?
That is the task faced by Eddie Jones after naming his first 36-man squad for the 2022 Guinness Six Nations.
Many would argue it’s a selection headache England are fortunate to have, with an abundance of quality to pick from in jumpers 10, 12 and 13.
But getting it right is potentially the key to mounting a challenge for the Championship this year after 2021’s disappointing fifth-place finish.
Farrell the banker
Despite only being due back from injury for Saracens this weekend, Owen Farrell has been named as England captain and looks set to be restored to the starting line-up for their opener away in Scotland on February 5.
Jones highlighted the respect Farrell commands from the rest of the group as key to his leadership and he is undoubtedly extremely valued by his coach, given he has been brought back into the fold immediately.
Contrastingly, previously integral players Sam Underhill and Elliot Daly are omitted at this stage due to a lack of “match fitness” despite having had considerably more game time than Farrell for their clubs.
All this means that, if fit, Farrell will be playing either at fly-half or inside centre.
Of course, for so many years he played outside George Ford, but the Leicester Tigers man appears to be far from Jones’ thoughts given the selection of promising Bath youngster Orlando Bailey in the third fly-half spot ahead of him.
Smith and Farrell
That leaves Harlequins’ Marcus Smith who is proving to be a match-winner week after week for his club, twice steering the Londoners to late wins over Exeter Chiefs and Cardiff in recent times.
Therefore, England fans are likely to see the Smith-Farrell axis given another whirl after a brief showing in the Autumn Nations Series.
They started together in the win over Australia and immediately got the Twickenham faithful purring after combining to set up the first try of the match in the seventh minute, with a sensational move that saw Farrell pass to Smith, who then made space with a quick step and put Freddie Steward in for his first score in England colours.
And now, the duo are set to play together for the first time in the Guinness Six Nations with the impressive Henry Slade the favourite to be named alongside them.
S-lade down a marker
The Exeter Chiefs man was arguably England’s star performer in the Autumn Nations Series, his silky running, ball-playing and solid defence appear to now be integral to the Jones side.
Slade’s place is that little bit safer given the absence of Manu Tuilagi who Jones revealed had suffered a “wee setback” in his injury comeback.
When asked if the Sale Sharks centre will feature in the Championship, the coach said: “We will just have to wait and see where he’s up to.
“He’ll need to get some good training form; he’ll need to play a few games. If we were 100 per cent optimistic, we’d say yes, if we are realistic, it’s probably about 50:50.”
The main criticism of a Smith, Farrell and Slade combination is that it is slightly lightweight.
That is something the presence of Tuilagi negates which explains why Jones pushed him out to 14, at least on the teamsheet if not into a traditional winger role, in that experimental line-up against the Wallabies.
If Jones was to think along those lines, Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson could win his second cap after continuing to excel in the Premiership, showing both grunt and guile in the centres.
It could become a case of horses for courses against certain opposition, for example if France were to utilise the powerful Jonathan Danty and/or Virimi Vakatawa in midfield, Jones may be forced to rethink his plans.
Slade’s clubmate Jack Nowell is back in the England fold for the first time since 2019 and is more than capable of slotting in at outside centre if needed and would bring plenty of dynamism and power to the role.
However, the Cornishman is likely to be eased back into the fray and used predominantly in the back three.
In a similar fashion to Slade, Harlequins duo Joe Marchant and Luke Northmore are two skilful operators who could wear the No.13 for their country.
Both have been used on the wing – Marchant was notably selected there in the win over South Africa last year by Jones – and their versatility could come in very handy during a demanding Championship, with Northmore aiming to win his first cap off the back of his maiden call-up.