Despite reaching the last four of this year’s rugby World Cup, and only being a Handre Pollard penalty away from reaching the final, England’s 2023 World Cup campaign must still be classified as a mixed bag. This has left head coach Steve Borthwick with several key questions to answer, none more important than who will be his fly-half to lead the team over the next four years and into the 2027 World Cup.
This campaign saw strong performances from all three of the leading candidates Owen Farrell, George Ford and Marcus Smith, and whatever direction Borthwick goes inevitably will be pivotal in England’s attempt to go a few games better in four years.
Owen Farrell may appear to be the obvious answer in the short term. He is England’s captain and has arguably been the most important and iconic player England rugby has had since Jonny Wilkinson.
His talismanic performance against South Africa saw him score all 15 of his side’s points demonstrating that he still can put the team on his back and be the focal point of his side.
However, age is not the Saracens man’s side. He is now 32, meaning by the time the next World Cup is upon us he will be 36. To put this into context, the great Dan Carter retired from international duty at the age of 34, with Wilkinson himself retiring at 32. Both Borthwick and Farrell will likely take inspiration from Irish legend Jonathan Sexton, who just emotionally bowed out from the game aged 38. However, his last few years saw his game time meticulously managed by Irish rugby, a privilege of their central contract system, a luxury not afforded in England.
Borthwick will certainly have doubts as to whether the man he put so much faith in this time around will still be able to mix it with the best in four years. The retirement of England stalwarts such as Courtney Lawes, Jonny May, and Ben Youngs, and the age of other prominent England stars including Danny Care and Dan Cole, appears to indicate the end of an era for this England side. Therefore, Steve Borthwick could not be blamed for viewing the decision to re-build his team around Farrell as a risk, especially when he has perfectly capable, younger options at his disposal.
George Ford has regularly been overlooked during his England career, despite notching up over 90 caps to date, often playing second fiddle to his former schoolmate Farrell.
The vast majority of Ford’s test starts saw Farrell undertaking kicking responsibilities whilst also being deployed outside him at 12.
It is important to remember, however, that Ford was the mainstay at fly-half during England’s most successful period since 2003. This saw them go on a record, equalling, winning run of 18 games, with the grand slam in 2016 being the peak of this. Furthermore, since being dropped by Eddie Jones in 2021, Ford has produced some of the best rugby of his career, for both club and country. His man-of-the-match performance against Argentina, in England’s opening game in France, can be viewed as the stand-out of his career. Ford scored 27 points, including three drop goals, in one of the best individual performances seen in an England shirt for some time. The failed attempt to reignite his partnership with Farrell shows Ford is better when he has the reigns to himself.
Being only two years the junior to Farrell suggests Ford may also struggle to make it to the next World Cup, however, his game relies more on his rugby IQ than physicality, meaning there is a strong argument to suggest that now may be the time Ford, who already has a winning relationship with Borthwick, steps aside from Farrell’s shadow, becoming England’s main man.
Put simply, Smith has skills that neither Ford nor Farrell possess. His natural flair and ability to freely play what is in front of him, combined with his electric pace and magical step, mean Smith can create try-scoring opportunities out of nothing. This unique ability saw Steve Borthwick even revert to deploying Smith at fullback in an attempt to add his dynamism into a stuttering backline, a position Smith had never played before. Yet despite his valiant efforts against Fiji in the quarter-final, Smith’s defensive frailties were exposed when facing more established opposition in Argentina. The missed tackle that allowed Santiago Carreras to score is clear evidence of this, and with the imposing Freddie Steward available, fullback should not be a long-term position for Smith at test level.
Borthwick’s style of play and rugby philosophy may also not suit the talents of Smith, but it is important to remember the World Cup cycle is a four-year project, and whilst starting Smith may not give immediate success, only with consistent test match experience will he be able to unlock his potential in the international arena, which could just be the answer for England to finally regain the Webb-Ellis trophy.
The most likely scenario will see Borthwick utilise all three of these fly-halves at points during this upcoming World Cup cycle. Smith’s ability to turn a game on his head, and his age, should see him lock down the 22-shirt at a minimum.
Naturally, the game time of either Ford or Farrell would suffer for this. Ford being the younger of the pair, and already achieving success as the talisman of Borthwick’s 2022 premiership-winning Leicester Tigers side, may just see the prominence and role of the man who has been the face of English rugby for years now, Owen Farrell, dimmish before the start of the next world cup.