The key question facing Steve Borthwick set to shape England’s future

While Keir Starmer’s arrival in Downing Street now seems a foregone conclusion, another battle for No 10 this summer looks rather tougher to call. Steve Borthwick will step into the polling booth ahead of England’s tour of Japan and New Zealand with two contrasting, compelling candidates on his ballot paper – for Marcus and Fin Smith, opportunity knocks.

It was in no uncertain terms that Borthwick outlined the chance available to the two fly-halves on Monday. Having been forced to leave his Six Nations starter George Ford at home due to an achilles injury, the England head coach opted for only two specialists at the position in his 36-man squad, setting up a straight shootout between two of the most gifted playmakers in the country.

“Clearly there is an opportunity for a different starting fly-half to play against Japan in 12 days’ time,” Borthwick stressed, emphasising the need for hasty hustings with less than a fortnight to the opening Test in Tokyo. “The opportunity is there for that fly-half to really grab this team and take it forward.

“We’ve picked two specialist fly-halves in Marcus and Fin. They are two world-class fly-halves. Any injury to a player is an opportunity for another player. I expect Marcus and Fin to seize the opportunity by producing winning performances.”

Not since Morrissey and Johnny Marr has a battle of The Smiths been so intriguing. Their manifestos will not be to everyone’s tastes but there can be no denying that each has produced a strong case for contention for the new vacancy.

The Saint perhaps has a higher ceiling as a game manager, but the spark shown regularly at Harlequins by Marcus Smith is of huge intrigue to England’s staff. It helps, too, that at just 25, he already has more than 30 international caps – throwing in a relative rookie to a tour of New Zealand would be bold. Were it not for injury in Girona in January, it is thought that Marcus Smith was in line to be handed the starting fly-half shirt for the Six Nations.

But the newly crowned Premiership winner seems to be the coming man. Fin Smith spoke well after the Premiership final of how watching Ford lead England match-weeks had taught him how to guide Northampton towards their eventual title triumph. He has shown an ability to handle the pressure throughout this campaign. “I think you’ve seen the progression of Fin in a relatively short time, with consistent performances he’s put in for Northampton, marshalling his team around the pitch, in hard-fought games, in tough environments he’s performed,” Borthwick outlined. “I think he’s been excellent.”

It may also count in his favour how much of the English backline may be Saints drawn. Alex Mitchell, despite a sub-par showing in the final, would seem to be inked in at nine, while George Furbank has dovetailed nicely with Smith at Franklin’s Gardens this season. Tommy Freeman’s ability to offer cover at 13 and 15 provides extra value with Elliot Daly awaiting the birth of a child, though his spot starting on the wing may come under pressure from club colleague Ollie Sleightholme.

“It’s one of the factors you consider when selecting,” Borthwick said of how that in-built club cohesion may benefit him. “If you put this into context, we train on Tuesday here at Twickenham and then travel on Wednesday, train on Friday, and then we’re into Test week.

“At times you have a longer period, like pre-World Cup and during the Six Nations, which means you’re able to progress and build those relationships. One of the things you have to do is ensure you get the right combinations who have played together either at international level or club level so they have that cohesion.”

What is clear from Borthwick’s squad is how he sees the evolving trends of rugby union. Since the World Cup, the breakdown has become an even more brutal battleground, and speed away from the ruck is ever more vital. That feeds into a predilection for pace and predators shown across the 36-man group: a squad light on locks (four) and lumbering flankers has as many as four openside options; Harry Randall’s selection over Jack van Poortvliet likewise shows a desire for extra zip.

While the set-piece battles and kick contests remain crucial, their head coach’s points of emphasis seem to have shifted. This comes partly out of England’s own development and the style they expect from their two foes – Felix Jones, Borthwick’s defence coach, has prepared an “encyclopedia” on England’s opposition having pored over footage of both the Japanese Top League and Super Rugby Pacific.

“We’re seeing that the pace of [England] training is higher than where it has been previously, which tells us a bit more about the direction which this team is developing, in terms of athleticism and dynamism,” Borthwick explained. “This is a new team now. And that’s going to reflect in how we play.

“We expect a talented, fast Japanese team. They have gone on record talking about how fast they wish to play, so there is a great tactical challenge there. The level of competition at the breakdown in Super Rugby is higher from a defensive point of view than it is over here. We expect there to be a big jump around how you need to be around the breakdown, [and] how accurate you need to be at the breakdown to get quick ball to be able to attack.”

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