Six Nations: Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell in training ground showdown for starting spot against France
Harlequins playmaker Smith and England captain Farrell are tussling for the No10 shirt to take on Les Bleus in the Six Nations clash at Twickenham on Saturday.
Smith’s impressive showing in Harlequins’ 40-5 victory over Exeter last weekend has pushed the 24-year-old into strong contention for a starting berth.
Head coach Steve Borthwick could pair Smith and Farrell at 10 and 12, but that would break up the burgeoning centre partnership of Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade.
Smith could yet start, with Farrell coming off the bench to close out the clash as the captaincy is not thought to leave the Saracens stalwart an automatic selection.
Smith missed England’s training camp in Brighton last week, released to play for Quins, but Farrell insisted that has not left him playing catch-up on plans for France.
“He didn’t miss too much last week, I don’t think individually. It’s more progression on what we’ve already been doing,” said Farrell. “The difficult bit is getting the whole team to understand it, not just having one person who can come back and fit into it, and slot in.
“Marcus has been playing with his club, has played well at the weekend, and I’d say he was up to speed before we even got on the training field. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult for him.”
Borthwick’s calculated gamble of allowing Smith to play for Harlequins paid full dividend, after a fine, morale-boosting performance and no injury issues, either.
Sale’s George Ford has been released this week, leaving Smith and Farrell as England’s two playmakers to face France.
“I’m sure playing for his club gave him confidence,” said Farrell.
“It looked like he enjoyed himself, didn’t it? He played very well, so it’s only good for us. You only had to look at the game to see how much he enjoyed himself and how much of a spring he’s had in his step coming into camp this week.”
Ellis Genge would captain England from the off should Farrell start from the bench.
“Owen will always be captain material and always play his role as he does, whether he is captain or not,” said assistant coach Kevin Sinfield. “Whether Owen is in the side or not, he’ll continue to be a great leader for us, I have no doubt.”
One inside back definitely not facing France is Manu Tuilagi, who will complete a three-match suspension. The Sale powerhouse has stayed in the England camp, however, acting as a not-so secret weapon this week. He has mimicked France’s power runners in training, to steel his team-mates for the battle ahead.
Tuilagi will be available for England’s tournament closing game in Ireland on March 18.
“Manu has had a specific role over the last couple of weeks when in camp, to run as opposition players and he has done a good job,” said Sinfield.
“He is a real pro who understands what it takes to win big games. We mix and match anyway, certainly at the start of the week there are different combinations we try to run.
“All the players bring different skill sets, especially across the backline, and they compete so hard every day.”