CHRIS FOY: Borthwick's made it clear no England player is untouchable

CHRIS FOY: It’s a seismic shock and a profound statement of ruthless intent from Steve Borthwick to drop England captain Owen Farrell in favour of Marcus Smith… the new head coach is making it clear that NO-ONE is untouchable

  • Steve Borthwick is set to drop Owen Farrell from his starting XV against France
  • Borthwick named Farrell as his captain in January and has praised his leadership
  • His decision to replace Farrell with Marcus Smith shows no one is undroppable 

Marcus Smith’s impending recall at No 10 for England is significant, but the fact that he is set to replace Owen Farrell – who is destined for a bench role against France – is truly momentous.

Frankly, this decision, which is expected to be confirmed tomorrow afternoon, is a seismic shock and a profound statement of ruthless intent from Steve Borthwick. 

The new Red Rose head coach is making it clear that no-one is untouchable; not even the national captain and Test centurion whose authority and influence he eulogised about after naming his first squad in January.

It is impossible to exaggerate what a big call it is by Borthwick, so early in his tenure, given Farrell’s status and pedigree. For most of his career, if the 31-year-old has been fully fit and available to play, he has started for England. 

The last time that didn’t happen for a major match was when the national team faced Fiji in the 2015 World Cup opener at Twickenham, as George Ford wore 10 and Farrell was among the replacements.

Steve Borthwick has decided to drop captain Owen Farrell for England’s game against France

Marcus Smith will start at fly-half, with Farrell dropping to the bench at Twickenham

Since then, he has only been on the bench for his country three times; against Japan in 2018, in a World Cup warm-up encounter with Wales in the summer of 2019 and in the pool-stage fixture against the USA in Kobe a few weeks later. But those were rotation occasions and this is not. This is ‘Le Crunch’. 

This is a showdown with Six Nations champions France, when England need to be as near to full-strength as possible for a daunting assignment.

So to leave Farrell out of the first-choice XV for this high-stakes game is an extremely meaningful act by the new Red Rose regime. 

It will force the Saracens playmaker to realise that his position is as precarious as anyone else’s, after three rounds of the championship when he has landed just seven out of 15 shots at goal, and only ignited England’s attack in fleeting bursts.

Reputations are providing no security in areas of selection competition. First, Borthwick opted to omit Manu Tuilagi from his midfield, after the Sale centre had been regarded as a crutch for so many past England coaches who relied on his gainline-busting power. 

Then the man who guided Leicester to Premiership title glory last season ejected a veteran Tiger and the country’s most-capped player, Ben Youngs.

Farrell is not used to being dropped having been a key player for England for over a decade

But this decision is on a whole different level. It is a brave move by Borthwick, to make a definitive choice in such a key area of the team. His predecessor, Eddie Jones, remained loyal to Farrell and valued his reassuring presence as an ultra-competitive talisman of the team, even before he was captain. 

So often when George Ford wore 10, or Danny Cipriani did, or Smith, Farrell wore 12 – but now he is set to wear 22 and fulfil an unfamiliar supporting role.

It will jar for someone who has so little experience of being demoted. Farrell has had his share of injury setbacks in recent years, but the only time he has been fit, available and overlooked was in South Africa with the Lions in 2021 when he was a replacement in the first two Tests and then left out of the match-day 23 entirely by Warren Gatland for the series decider.

What Borthwick’s decision means is that Smith has been given the conductor’s baton. He will run the show, without sub-consciously deferring to an imposing presence alongside him. 

When Jones strove to forge a partnership between the Harlequins prodigy and Farrell, it meant that the skipper was always seen as the real driving force, but now Smith will be left to dictate the game.

Supporters heading to Twickenham on Saturday will be enthused by the prospect of watching Smith illuminate a grand occasion with his trademark attacking brilliance. That’s the theory anyway. But it remains to be seen whether his elevation at the expense of Farrell will lead to a tactical liberation.

Ellis Genge will captain England for a game they must win to keep their Six Nations hopes alive

When Borthwick resurrected Leicester and turned them back into league champions, he didn’t deviate from a structured, high-intensity, high-pressure, kicking and territorial game-plan. 

So just because Smith is going to wear 10, it doesn’t necessarily follow that England are going to transform into all-court entertainers. The creative genius in him might be tempered by team orders, so fans hoping for high-octane thrills and spills shouldn’t assume that is what they will see.

As for the captaincy, with Farrell among the reserves and Courtney Lawes injured again, the armband will pass to Ellis Genge, who led the Tigers to Premiership glory under Borthwick. 

The prop has become a mainstay of the pack, and someone capable of setting a thunderous tone and naturally connecting with the players around him. Whether it is for this week only or for much longer, he will bring passion and commitment and aggressive intent to the job.

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