No fix in sight for England’s midfield mess

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It’s a positional nightmare that was never resolved under Eddie Jones and going on the evidence of Guinness Six Nations loss to Scotland, it doesn’t look any closer to resolution under new head coach Steve Borthwick.

England’s 10, 12, 13 axis has seen a multitude of combinations shoe-horned together over the last seven years – and somehow none have ever really stuck.

Saturday’s trio of Marcus Smith at flyhalf, Owen Farrell at 12 and Joe Marchant again, failed to convince.

Until this weekend, the consensus was that a fully fit Manu Tuilagi was a must-start when fit. Borthwick, maybe of a mind to turnover a new leaf post-Eddie Jones, made a statement by dropping the rampaging but injury-prone Sale Sharks centre from his match day 23.

A bold call and one many believe backfired against Scotland. As Duhan van der Merwe scattered and stepped English defenders, England fans pondered why Borthwick hadn’t deployed their own 17-stone wrecking ball.

Writing in his BBC column, Matt Dawson suggested that Borthwick has pained himself into a corner with the selection of Farrell at 12. “I cannot see how that midfield is going to be a good enough threat to compete at the highest level going forward.

“When you are a fly-half playing at that sort of intensity against a rampant Scottish defence, you want other people to be crashing it up and making the carries to create the space for your next wave of attack, which will include you. Unfortunately that is not in Farrell’s skillset as a 12,” wrote Dawson. “The problem is, with Farrell as captain, if Borthwick experiments in that area and drops his skipper as a result – that is going to be massive news.”

Sam Warburton argued on the BBC that England had ‘two worldclass’ flyhalves, but they shouldn’t necessarily play together. “It reminds of England in the football 10 years ago when you had Gerrard and Lampard. You’ve got two world-class players, but do they go together? It’s like a celebration thing. I don’t want to create rivalries between Smith and Farrell. I sort of had that with myself and [Justin] Tipuric, you don’t want that. It’s a distraction to the players.

“England should be celebrating that they have two world-class 10s. One of England’s tries Farrell was at 10 for five phases in a row. Do you need two playmakers to be able to find space? I don’t think you do.

“Just how do they fit them into the team? If everyone was fit, you’d think that it would be one or the other.  That decision might have to come sooner rather than later.”

Popular rugby pundit Paul Williams said that England must choose between the pair and have a ‘proper 12’ playing in the centre: “If you’re playing Marcus Smith – who I love. You need a proper 12 who can carry any shite ball into contact. If you’re playing Farrell at ten, you don’t.”

With Harlequins attack guru Nick Evans now in situ for England, it’s clear the odds of Smith staying at 10 have shortened considerably. Whatever combination Borthwick comes to, he must surely make the call sooner rather than later and stick to it. The number of games he has left to trial and refine it is rapidly dwindling.