European stage chance for England's next number 10 to make their mark

Marcus Smith operated at full-back during England's recent World Cup campaign but are his sights now on the 10 shirt?
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The start of the Investec Champions Cup brings huge excitement around Europe and South Africa.

With the world’s top clubs colliding and best players battling it out, it’s also an ideal competition for players to stake their claims for international places with the Six Nations, in particular, just around the corner.

With the recent news that England captain and the last man to hold the number 10 shirt under Steve Borthwick, Owen Farrell, has decided to step back from international duty, this once again puts the fly-half position under the microscope when it comes to the national side.

The two favourites for the shirt faced off last weekend in the Gallagher Premiership, with Marcus Smith's Harlequins blowing away George Ford's Sale Sharks at The Stoop, with the former putting in a man-of-the-match performance and setting up a brilliant try for half-back partner Danny Care with his trademark footwork.

Fans would now assume this puts Smith in front in a head-to-head between the two, and he will no doubt have the chance to impress once again in a tough fixture this Sunday against Racing 92 in Paris.

Being able to perform away in France, with world champion Siya Kolisi attempting to nullify his attacking prowess would be a real achievement for the fly-half.

The following week, Quins host Toulouse in a game that showcases two teams that play some of the most exciting and free-flowing rugby, which could result in us seeing Smith at his goose-stepping best.

On the other hand, you have Ford and Sale who host Stade Français in their opening game, a chance for them to bounce back from the loss last week.

Their bigger challenge arguably comes in Round Two when they make the trip to last year's finalists Leinster.

The Irish province are currently top of the United Rugby Championship, winning six out of seven.

A recent injury to first-choice fly-half Ross Byrne, after the retirement of Jonny Sexton, may allow Ford to stamp his authority on the game and show his experience in the hope that he can steer Sale to a historic win in Dublin.

A victory in Ireland would certainly be a feather in Ford's cap as England have three away games in the 2024 Six Nations so that is a skill Borthwick will need in his side if they are to win in tough environments.

Whilst we have built this up as a head-to-head between two high-quality fly-halves, the most in-form English 10 currently is arguably Northampton Saints' Finn Smith.

The 21-year-old has been starring so far this season and will look to make his mark in the Champions Cup up in Glasgow on Friday night.

Wintery conditions in Scotland always provide potential problems for fly-halves so it will be a strong test for the young 10 and a major tick in the box if he can overcome it.

One area that could separate him from the other two despite their brilliance is M.Smith and Ford have always faced criticism for their defensive frailties - and a reason why Farrell has been preferred at Test level.

F.Smith this season has the highest tackle success rate of fly-halves in the Gallagher Premiership, as seen from stats from Oval Insights.

This is something that could stand out to Borthwick and put Fin Smith in with a chance of selection if he can continue to impress whilst playing on the biggest club stage.

This weekend, I would say it is Marcus Smith who can put down the biggest marker for that coveted number 10 shirt as Racing 92 are a team of all-stars and any away win in France is a scalp.

Other big fixtures to look out for this weekend are Saracens' visit to the Bulls in South Africa with the potential return of Farrell to the side while the head-to-head battle between two World Cup-winning South African fly-haves in Handre Pollard and Manie Libbok - when Leicester Tigers face the Stormers on Sunday - also catches the eye.