England’s Smith making irresistible case for inclusion
25 September, 2023, 9:12 am
By Mitch Phillips
NICE, France (Reuters) – Coach Steve Borthwick is not generally a man to make radical decisions but England fans excited by what they saw against Chile on Saturday will probably be praying that he sticks with the experiment of playing Marcus Smith at fullback.
Despite Henry Arundell equalling his country’s record with five tries in the 71-0 thrashing, Smith was probably the stand-out player on his first professional start in the position.
When George Ford came on early in the second half, shifting Owen Farrell to inside centre, the “three 10s on the pitch” concept the coaches had discussed became a reality and England ran riot, albeit against a desperately tiring defence of the tournament’s lowest-ranked team.
The clamour for Smith’s inclusion comes on the back of England’s stilted displays in their opening wins over Argentina and Japan, though ironically he probably kicked from hand more on Saturday than when operating at flyhalf.
It is hard on Freddie Steward, who began his international career with a string of man of the match performances and was voted England’s player of the season for the last two years.
His incredible ability under the high ball and defensive security are traits Borthwick admires. But he has shown little attacking threat and if England are going to have any chance in the latter stages of the tournament, “solid” is not going to be enough.
England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth said Smith had been giving the coaches “food for thought” in the buildup to the World Cup and he was at his creative best in Lille.
“I know it was a bigger talking point than we felt it was, we just see a great rugby player,” Wigglesworth said on Sunday. “We were really confident he would produce that sort of performance.
“He’s a top, top international rugby player. When you have the level of ability he has got then you are always a viable option. And what’s impressive about him is that he just ripped into the role. He’s just gone ‘I want to get in to the team, I want to have an impact at a World Cup’. What an attitude for someone to have.”
Arundell too has given Borthwick a decision to make, despite most of his tries being very straightforward finishes.
England’s other wingers have hardly been tearing up trees this year, although they have had precious little ball to work with, and Arundell certainly possesses a rare combination of speed and power.
“If we can get the ball to him in space then he’s electric,” Wigglesworth said of the 20-year-old. “He’s a finisher, knows his way to the try line. He owes a few of the lads inside him a few beers for the help, but some of them he scored himself.”
England now have a two-week break before their final game against Samoa, and, although still not mathematically certain of progress, can safely plan for a Marseille quarter-final against Wales, Fiji or Australia.
They have three solid wins under their belt and have conceded only one try, late in the opening game against Argentina.
“We have got what we’d want out of the games and put ourselves in a strong position in the pool,” Wigglesworth said.
“We’ve been building. We said it would take time, but we want to play the smartest rugby we can. That will change from game to game, that’s the same for every team.
“You don’t put your best or most clinical performance out every week but in patches we’ve been as good as we’ve needed to be. Now, let’s improve and make those patches last for longer and longer as the opposition ramps up.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Editing by Hugh Lawson)