‘I pick players for the strengths they bring’ – Borthwick backs Smith selection for France

Marcus Smith was Man of the Match for Harlequins last weekend in the Gallagher Premiership
©David Howlett

It was only last week that headlines conveyed the news that Marcus Smith had been released from the England squad during the second fallow week.

A week later and the narrative around the fly-half is much different after he put in a Man of the Match performance against Exeter Chiefs in Harlequins’ 40-5 win at Twickenham Stadium.

Replacing England captain Owen Farrell as the starting fly-half, with England’s captain dropping to the bench, it is a fairly remarkable passage of time that will now end with Smith pulling the strings as France come to West London in the Guinness Six Nations.

After starting against Scotland, Smith found playing time for England hard to come by. Coming off the bench for minutes against Italy and then seconds against Wales, Borthwick said that he wanted the 24-year-old to “boss” the game for his club side.

Smith certainly did that, slicing through Exeter with ease in the first half in particular and marshalling his side well on their way to a bonus point win. From the off, Borthwick said that Smith would be back in the England fold, although his instant promotion to starter for Le Crunch did catch plenty off-guard.

When unveiling his first England squad, Borthwick made it certain that Owen Farrell was his captain. With over 100 caps to his name, 

Farrell was in many ways the obvious choice and has shone in spells so far this Six Nations, although his goal kicking has left much to be desired.

“You know me well enough to know I spend plenty of time considering decisions in all aspects, the game and how we train,” Borthwick said.

“And especially around selection. The players understand I put my consideration into this and discuss my decisions with them and give my rationale to the players.

“Now this selection – and to be clear again, it’s specific to the opponent this week and that’s always the way I approach it and the way I’ve encouraged the players to think and not thinking about the tournament and times ahead, but just Saturday.

“Because that’s what I think the players deserve and the supporters deserve and you’d expect me to be focused on and that’s one for us.”

What Smith will bring to England is plenty of creativity. Able to pick apart defences at will, it could well be the case that England’s plan is to run France off their feet and tire out that big French pack as the game wears on and unleash the outside backs.

Since making his Test debut in 2021, Smith has hardly been handed the keys to England’s attack. Often seeming uncomfortable in international rugby, one of the game’s golden children has not quite lived up to a well-documented rise from schoolboy rugby to the elite.

Asked whether or not Smith was being forced to fit a structure, which in some ways could stifle him, Borthwick was quick to point out his prerogative of selecting players based on form and what they do best for his England team.

“I’ve been pretty consistent in saying, I pick players for the strengths they bring to the team,” Borthwick said. “And one of the things I’m inspiring to do here, is to get them to bring their strengths onto the pitch in an England shirt.

“And I think you’d all agree, potentially, is that there has been a period of time where that hasn’t always been the case, of the players bringing all their strengths to the team. And part of my job as coach is to build a framework where we have a plan.

“Yes, to select the team, but also to encourage these players to be able to find and bring all their strengths onto the pitch. And that’s what I want for all the players on Saturday.”

After three games of his tenure as England’s figurehead, Borthwick is still very much finding his feet as head coach. He is stretching and testing his players, all with the aim of winning every game his team takes to the field for.

England sit third in the Six Nations table. They have 10 points, the same amount as Scotland and France, this weekend’s clash potentially going a long way to deciding who will head into super Saturday with silverware on their mind.

In France, Borthwick’s team will have perhaps their sternest challenge yet. Last season’s champions took apart England in Paris a year ago, and would not lose a game in 2022, something which is a frankly remarkable feat.

Fabien Galthie’s side have since played one of the best Test matches ever in their loss to Ireland in this tournament, and survived scares against both Italy and Scotland. Even so, the Rugby World Cup hosts later this year are a threat.

“We know we face a French team that poses some specific challenges,” Borthwick said. “They have built a long kicking game that is the most advanced of any team in international rugby right now and have been working on that for three years.

“Then they have a forward pack with such incredible power that poses certain challenges for us. And then they have pace on the back of it that poses an incredible challenge. We will have to be very smart tactically.

“We know in terms of our development as a team and the foundations we are trying to build, even after only three games, but we are also excited in testing those foundations against the number two side in the world.

“We have to be smart tactically and work incredibly hard and defend very well against a team with that much power.”

England XV

Freddie Steward; Max Malins, Henry Slade, Ollie Lawrence, Anthony Watson; Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Ellis Genge (C), Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis & Alex Dombrandt


Jack Walker, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, David Ribbans, Ben Curry, Alex Mitchell, Owen Farrell & Henry Arundell