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Borthwick to gamble on Farrell and Smith with Ford set for England axe

Steve Borthwick appears set to axe George Ford and install his captain Owen Farrell at fly-half for England’s World Cup quarter-final against Fiji with Marcus Smith expected to be given the nod at full-back.

In what would represent two of the boldest selection calls of Borthwick’s tenure, the captain Farrell is likely to revert to the No 10 jersey with the head coach – who announces his team on Friday – primed to employ Smith as the second playmaker from full-back.

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Ford has been arguably England’s most impressive performer at the World Cup to date but Borthwick has been clear that Farrell is his right-hand man on the field and the decision to pair the two in a 10-12 partnership – for the first time since March 2021 – backfired last time out against Samoa.

Ford was named man of the match against Argentina and Japan – while Farrell was suspended – and is England’s top points scorer in the tournament with 41. Farrell, for his part, endured an ordinary outing against Samoa, conceding that his mistake to allow the shot clock to expire before taking a second-half penalty was “not good enough”, but it was Ford who made way with half an hour to go, with Smith coming on at full-back.

Smith, meanwhile, returned to the bench against Samoa, having impressed on his first start at full-back against Chile with Farrell at fly-half. He had never appeared there until the switch was suggested to him by the defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, over the summer. After an impressive cameo against Ireland during the World Cup warm-up campaign, Smith has been largely used at full-back by Borthwick.


Dropping Freddie Steward – who has started 29 of England’s past 30 Tests – however, would be a huge call by the head coach given his reliability under the high ball. Leaving Smith as the last line of defence against Fiji would be a gamble but he was one of England’s best performers against the Pacific islanders last month. Fiji claimed a first win at Twickenham that day but Smith came off the bench, scored England’s second try and brought some attacking verve to Borthwick’s side.

Marcus Smith takes a kickMarcus Smith is expected to be handed a start at full-back against Fiji. Photograph: Lairys Laurent/ABACA/Shutterstock

Jamie George has revealed that this week England have been shown videos of that nightmare defeat, admitting Fiji ran riot at Twickenham. England rounded off a dismal warm-up campaign with a 30-22 defeat at Twickenham, which sent expectations for Borthwick’s side into freefall. Since then they have qualified for the quarter-finals as pool winners and will again lock horns with Fiji in Marseille on Sunday but memories of that Twickenham defeat are still fresh. “[That defeat] has been brought up this week,” said George. “We would have been stupid not to because it was almost like a line in the sand previously, for us to step forward from. We learned a huge amount that week and we are a significantly better team on the back of it. Some clips have been shown, because it is a reminder we can’t be that team again, playing against a very, very good team that are very dangerous when you give them what they want. We weren’t physical enough – just a few clips, because we don’t need it hammering home – but a few clips were brought up by Kev Sinfield. He said: ‘I wasn’t sure about showing you this, but we can’t be this team again’. We are still hurting from performances like that. You don’t like to be reminded of those things but if that can fuel the fire then why not? It has been received really well.

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“It was two clips but it was us not being the England team we wanted to be. Fiji running riot at Twickenham and it was like ‘that can’t happen’ then showing some positive clips of where we have come to now, how we have defended through the tournament and going ‘look lads, we can’t ever allow this to happen again’ and reminders like that need to happen.”