Ex-England ace backs Rugby World Cup bolter to keep captain Owen Farrell’s place
It's rare in rugby that a team captain finds himself excluded from the squad – but there's an outside chance that's the fate awaiting England's Owen Farrell at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
George Ford's reintroduction as the national team's No10 during Farrell's four-match suspension has unearthed a winning formula for Steve Borthwick's side, who have won two from two thus far in France. The 30-year-old Sale fly-half slotted nine kicks from as many attempts (including three drop goals) to secure a shockingly decisive win against Argentina, then played the entire 80 minutes in a more expansive 34-12 win over Japan on Sunday.
Current form indicates a marked improvement on the team that struggled to three defeats from four warm-up outings this summer and failed to inspire at this year's Six Nations, where only Wales and Italy scored fewer tries. Farrell, 31, will be available for selection in Saturday's Pool D clash with Chile, but two-time former England international Topsy Ojo told Daily Star Sport he believes Ford's promotion has created a new combination that doesn't need fixing.
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"I think Owen will likely come in to play against Chile," said ex-Premiership talisman Ojo ahead of England's two back-to-back fixtures in Lille. "He won't have anything to prove. I think people know exactly what he's capable of.
"As it stands, I think George starts in that Samoa game [on October 7], because he hasn't done anything to lose [his place]. In fact, he's enhanced his reputation in the jersey. There might be a situation where, depending on how things unfold, you might get the two of them on the pitch.
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"But then the other one to throw into that equation is Marcus Smith and what he brings off the bench. His ability to come on at full-back as well and [perform] there. So it's going to be a really interesting couple of weeks in terms of how England decide what their fly-half situation is going to be moving forward."
Harlequins sparkplug Smith has come on for late cameos against Argentina and Japan, replacing Ford at 10 in the former before impressing from full-back against the latter. Hailed as England's playmaker of tomorrow, the 24-year-old is widely considered something of a genius when going forward with the ball and one who could inspire should England fall behind.
England's rugby team will be aiming for glory in France, with Umbro supplying their kits for the tournament. It is the first time that the supplier have been handed the chance to produce the kits, with a traditional white home shirt emblazoned with the iconic red rose.
Ford, 30, is in his prime and looking every bit the strategic superpower his greatest supporters have championed as deserving greater international recognition under Borthwick's predecessor, Eddie Jones. And the incumbent coach now faces a conundrum in whether to respect rank and risk unravelling some key momentum, or reward a player who's been the driving force of England's recent success while leaving his skipper sidelined.
"For me personally, I think George [deserves] the shirt, because it's his and he's performed, and that's how it should be, really," ITV pundit and presenter Ojo continued. "If you're given an opportunity and you take it. I know England is captain and has been amazing during his career, but George has taken his opportunity now, and unless something happens between now and the Samoa game, I don't think he deserves to have that taken away from him."
The London Irish legend highlighted the balance that needs to be struck in the back line, with Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant "building a really nice partnership" in midfield of late. Farrell has plenty of experience operating at inside centre as an exterior 10, but the past two games have perhaps proved more can be achieved with players based in their most natural positions.
Tuilagi was a bulldozer in attack and defence against the Pumas and helped pacify the electric Argentina backs before they could get up to speed. Farrell is by no means a shrinking violet at 6'2" and just shy of 100 kilograms, but his physicality can't quite match that of Sharks star Tuilagi, whom Ojo noted benefits from his club partnership with Ford.
Unthinkable as it may be for some supporters, it may even be possible England head into the all-but-inevitable knockout round with Farrell absent from the squad altogether given Smith arguably offers more dynamism off the bench. And unless the captain is squeezed back into that makeshift midfield, Borthwick could make the tough call to exclude the Saracens star.
While the minnows have proved no result can be taken from granted at this World Cup, it seems almost definite Farrell will start at 10 against Chile at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. A game against lower-quality opposition – Chile are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament – offers an ideal chance to ease the captain back in and acquire some much-needed minutes.
There will be nothing new learnt about Farrell from facing the Condors, however, Borthwick can already start making his judgements on who will start the final pool outing against Samoa. It's thanks to Ford's influence that the Red Rose leads its group and has given England's fans new hope, and the coach could be rolling the dice by tinkering too much with a tested XV.
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