England face a playmaking dilemma this week, so here’s a possible solution: start everyone at once against Chile; George Ford with 10, Owen Farrell with 12 and Marcus Smith with 15.
Why not? The national team should win the next World Cup game in Group D on Saturday in Lille with a bonus point. So if there was ever a time for a bold, unorthodox plan, this is it.
Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario that will certainly not happen. But after England fans watched a clunky attacking performance against Japan and were exasperated by the non-spectacle until Smith was caught up in a surge in the final quarter, it is worth considering, even as an isolated case.
It depends on whether England want to push towards their ceiling in this World Cup; clinch a semi-final spot or try to find another shift that could make them a threat against the title favorites; France, South Africa and Ireland. One of these top teams will be lurking in the semi-finals – assuming England reach that stage – with a varied, lethal repertoire.
New Zealand adopted this bold selection option last year. With Richie Mo’unga at 10, Jordie Barrett at 12 and Beauden Barrett at 15, they were extremely effective. With multiple distributors, decision makers and clever kickers, they were able to torment defenses that don’t know where the next wave of trouble is coming from.
England’s Marcus Smith impressed with a cameo appearance at full-back against Japan on Sunday
George Ford (L) did enough to wear the number 10 jersey, but Owen Farrell (R) was missed
Selecting an England backline of this sort would be unusual but not unprecedented and the man in charge of the Red Rose attack admitted there is no reason why it couldn’t be an option. When asked about a three-playmaker model, Richard Wigglesworth said: “It’s not unthinkable, but it’s about what else is happening around them.”
“If we have absolute runners around us and these are their skills, then we want to train as many people as possible so that they can get the overview early on and be able to execute things.” So I don’t think it’s unthinkable, but you have to strike a balance between them. We also have Elliot Daly who can also run and pass, but it’s about finding the right balance. If you do that, it’s not unthinkable.’
Wigglesworth also praised the impact Smith has made at full-back since he was deployed there for the first time in Dublin last month, adding: “I think he’s done it really cleverly. “Firstly, he wants the ball First and foremost, be sure to get your hands on the ball.
“But he was really smart about where he positioned himself, how he got it done, and didn’t try to play like a 10-out wide. “He said, ‘Get me the ball and then I’ll keep playing. Then he will use the abilities of his feet and his acceleration.
“It’s really a testament to how smart he is.” He could have been a bit lost as he didn’t play there much, but he isn’t. He has figured out where to best place the ball to have a positive impact on the team. I was really impressed with him.’
Nobody is claiming that England can, in such a short space of time, build the same complex attack and cohesion that the All Blacks have often produced over the last 12 months, but is it worth a try when the result is already certain? If Borthwick instead picks Ford and Farrell together, but Steward again at full-back, he won’t learn much he doesn’t know and is unlikely to gain a new dimension. If he picks Farrell at 10 and gives Ford a rest, he gives his captain valuable playing time but doesn’t build anything meaningful for later rounds.
Two games into their season, one thing is clear to the playmakers: Ford has done enough to prove that he has to wear the number 10 jersey when the tough stuff comes, and that will be the case. He is the smart conductor that the national team needs. He started in a tricky group final against Samoa and then in the quarter-finals against Australia, Fiji or Wales. He has played with real authority in difficult situations and his place in the second half must now be secured. Borthwick would change that at his peril.
Farrell wasn’t missed when it came to running the show or displaying English defiance. They got along well with Ford at 10 and Lawes as captain. But the midfield partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant did not do enough to strengthen their alliance in the hard-fought victory over Japan. There is a possibility of adding Farrell, with Tuilagi in the wider center channel. Marchant could also be an option on the wing.
But Smith impressed again with a cameo at full-back, so it makes sense to press ahead with this promising experiment. Let him start there. Switch Freddie Steward to the wing to maintain his physical presence – and his aerial prowess at the back when England defend. But when they’re ready to launch attacks, Smith can take the central position, scanning and popping up wherever he can do the most damage.
Of course, Borthwick is keen to stick to a tight schedule, knowing his team has the fighting spirit, commitment and patient organization necessary to finish at the top of this group and even prevail against any of their potential quarter-final opponents. But it won’t be enough to challenge the very best. The head coach must know that deep down.
So if he’s willing to support a new plan that Kevin Sinfield proposed over the summer, it makes sense to give him enough time to get his act together and see how it works. If there’s any chance that the three-playmaker model can work, try it when – relatively speaking – the pressure is off.
There will be fears that opposing teams could attack Smith with high kicks. Admittedly, this is bound to happen. But it can happen in the 65th minute, as well as in the first. And guess what, those kicks aren’t judged perfectly. Imagine him running the ball back with plenty of room to break away and show off his deadly stopping acceleration.
England head coach Steve Borthwick will stick to a tight fixture schedule
Smith can lurk behind the other playmakers and forward groups – ready to make outside breakthroughs. Just imagine it; England takes away breaks. That alone would be enough to upset any of her rivals.
What is more realistic? The likely progression would be for Farrell to start at half-time, then he and Ford revive their 10-12 axis against Samoa to improve ahead of the quarter-finals. In due course, the England defense will likely have these two together, with Tuilagi wearing the 13, Marchant taking on a wing role and Steward remaining at full-back. Smith is almost certainly considered a “finisher” on the bench; Someone who can get around tiring defenses.
But if England have more in mind here than just a valiant but limited season of near failure, they should consider playing with three playmakers against Chile. The worst thing that can happen is that they realize it doesn’t quite work and resort to proven alternatives.
But if it brings the attack to life, it could make Borthwick’s team real contenders in this tournament – and quickly turn public apathy into admiration.