Owen Farrell, England Captain, is sitting out this Six Nations. He will be sorely missed, whether he had 10 or 12 on his back, this England team will be worse without him in it. But what it does is leave the door open for a new-look England, potentially playing a different style.
What is needed from a Fly Half at the international level? A consistent goal-kicker is a good start, look no further than starting 10 for South Africa in the World Cup final, Handre Pollard, who has backed up those performances with the best kick conversion in the Gallagher Premiership so far this year. And as is the nature of test rugby, taking the 3 over going for the corner happens more frequently on the international stage. Kicking out of hand is also an important skill. But beyond putting boot to ball, you need a playmaker, someone who can create space for themselves and others. But the biggest skill is knowing when to turn it on, try the risky pass or go yourself, and when to do the basics. Once this is mastered you have yourself a world-class fly-half, proven by Finn Russell, who has learnt such skill and delivers moments of magic when necessary, in game after game for both Bath and Scotland.
Even without Farrell as an option, England is blessed with quality 10s, with Marcus Smith and George Ford being the two obvious candidates to be fighting it out to be named on the team sheet. With two differing styles and at opposite ends of their career, Borthwick’s selection for this 6 Nations will offer an early insight into his plans for the coming World Cup cycle. Previously criticised for not playing exciting rugby in attack, who he selects at 10 will determine whether we will see a continuation from the past year, or a rebuild over the next few seasons before the 2027 World Cup.
George Ford of Sale, who was pivotal to the Leicester Tigers team which took the league title in 2022 under the management of Borthwick, offers a much more conservative style of play to Smith. He is a fantastic kicker, both from the tee and through his infamous spiral bombs during live play. In attack he is known for accuracy in his passing, taking the ball to the game line and putting players around him into gaps. He possesses an incredible ability to control the game, with his cameo in the opening game of last year’s World Cup proving just that. He did not try to do too much but ensured England held momentum throughout, a telltale sign of a class fly-half.
His game lacks in two areas, however. Firstly, it is rare to see him do something magical with the ball in hand on his own. Whilst great at putting others into space, he lacks the speed and footwork to go on his own. Secondly, he has previously come under scrutiny around his defensive ability. Ford tackles high looking to rip the ball rather than bring the player to the ground, which sometimes leads to him being exposed when a big ball carrier lines him up.
Marcus Smith of Harlequins offers something very different to Ford. He is much faster, has great footwork and is a threat ball in hand, not just by who he brings into the game but on his own given some space, he is deadly. It has been seen time and time again for Harlequins where Smith has turned nothing into something, and his ability to know when to give the pass and when to go alone sets him apart from many other players. He is without a doubt one of the most exciting 10s in the world to watch when he is firing on all cylinders.
However, what he has not quite mastered yet is the understanding that test rugby is different to club rugby. The space you get internationally is less, and so is the opportunity to do what he does best. For him to develop into a world-class player he needs to learn when to be that spark and when to go through the basics, something which if he gets to grips with will set him apart from the rest.
Ultimately Marcus Smith is the answer, he will bring to this English side an exciting attacking flair, which will be welcomed by fans and players alike. But Ford is not the problem. What Ford offers is an element of Smith’s game he is yet to master. If Smith can learn the art of controlling the game, knowing when to do things based on the situation in front of him and understanding that it’s okay to play more conservatively from time to time, he will be the complete package. Therefore, having someone like Ford to guide him will be crucial for his development in the years to come.
If England are serious about challenging for the World Cup in 2027, they need Smith to be tried and tested and ready for the challenges that the tournament will throw at them, and to do that he needs to play and start consistently, learning each game and developing. With Ford training alongside him and offering something different, England will benefit short term from having two different styles of play at 10 in the coming 6 Nations, but also in the long run as Smith proves himself as the full package.