The Borthwick revolution begins now and the arguments for starting Smith are overwhelming

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Nothing stands still in top-level rugby. It may have been just 11 weeks since England watched their World Cup bronze medals under the Friday night lights at the Stade de France, but significant change is now imminent. Sooner rather than later, head coach Steve Borthwick must identify a new wave of players who, as well as winning Six Nations games this year, can potentially go for gold in Australia in 2027.

Too often over the years this renewal process has started too slowly. The necessary points have not always been taken advantage of, allowing valuable playing time and team bonding opportunities to be lost. Some of the scattered selections of the Eddie Jones era did little for collective confidence, while the Saracens salary cap saga and the Covid pandemic further clouded Twickenham’s vision.

Related: England’s Mako Vunipola retires from international rugby after 79 caps

And now? For the first time in a long time, England has the chance to build something more stable. A group of loyal servants will not make it to the next World Cup and, in most positions, a cohort of genuinely talented younger alternatives is emerging. The technician also knows the landscape of the Red Rose perfectly. He only has to choose wisely when he presents his first template of the year this Wednesday.

Intrigue? Uncertainty? In a perfect world, the Rugby Football Union would hire Claudia Winkleman, move everyone to an isolated castle and put on a proper show. Are stalwarts like Dan Cole, Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler about to be banished? What’s the best way to separate the good guys from the bad guys? The more you think about it, the more possibilities there are to make your team announcements that much more dramatic.

Maybe they should also expand the talent identification network. If a 16-year-old can make it to the world darts final, surely he can be taught to throw a lineout ball? England captaincy contender Jamie “Boy” George against Luke “the Nuke” Littler? If Littler can still reach the double-top after being overtaken by the sharp-shooting Aled Walters, England’s strength and conditioning guru, he surely has a decent future at oval.

For now, however, Borthwick can only choose from what is currently on the shelves. In one or two aisles his supplies are slightly short, as more than half of the starting XV for the World Cup semi-final against South Africa will be absent against Italy in Rome in three weeks. A series of Test retirements (Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Jonny May), the unavailability of Owen Farrell and injuries to Tom Curry, Manu Tuilagi and Marler, among others, will result in an appreciably different team squad.

However, the most crucial detail is not so much the names but rather how the team will try to play. England came close to defeating the Springboks on a disgusting, wet night in Paris that showed inspiring levels of spirit and effort. The next step is to add some finesse to the attack and encourage a more proactive and less risk-averse mindset.

Borthwick has already publicly acknowledged that England’s recent efforts in the Six Nations (they have not finished in the top two since 2020) have been poor and that the time is near to change the record. While the mantra is evolution rather than revolution, selection needs to be bolder and less data-driven. It is easy to forget, for example, that England’s first-choice scrum-half, Alex Mitchell, was not chosen for the original World Cup squad and did so only because of an injury to Jack van Poortvliet. How many other Mitchells are there out there?

A few, potentially. Someone like Northampton’s Tommy Freeman looks like a serious athlete and has to participate. Another Saint, George Furbank, must also be trying hard, and Freddie Steward is not necessarily a candidate as a starting full-back. If England are to inject more energy into their counter-attacking game, they need disruptive threats from deep and great solidity on the ball. Exeter’s Josh Hodge and Sale’s Joe Carpenter are other long-term options.

Perhaps the tall Steward could transform into England’s Jordie Barrett and move towards the centre? Either way, it’s time to stop considering the increasingly injury-prone Tuilagi essential to everything. Waiting for Manu has become something akin to a Samuel Beckett play about unrequited longing and groin problems that will prevent him from starting the championship anyway. It would surely be better to whistle at England’s two most in-form Premiership centres, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade, with Saracen’s promising 6ft 4in Olly Hartley also in the mix. Northampton’s Fraser Dingwall, who once captained Scotland U18s, could be another contender.

Which brings us to the top half, which will reveal how Borthwick’s mind really works. Marcus Smith is a talented player who has been shunted or forced to fit into a tactical system that doesn’t suit him much. With the absent Farrell, for now, out of the equation and George Ford requiring injections in an injured knee, the case for choosing Smith at number 10 for the first two games against Italy and Wales is overwhelming.

If selected, he should simply be given some determined running backs to unleash. Cadan Murley, if fit, is a great Harlequins team-mate and he and Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley have been unlucky, despite Elliot Daly’s all-round ability, not to feature on the left wing until now. There should also be room for Exeter’s Manny Feyi-Waboso or Sale’s Tom Roebuck, assuming Wales and Scotland don’t finish first respectively. That would allow Anthony Watson a few more games for Leicester in which to press his case for a withdrawal ahead of Scotland’s game at Murrayfield in the third round.

On the other hand, there cannot be an exciting attack without a fast ball. Injuries have reduced England’s loose forward options for the match against Italy but, if Ellis Genge’s return is delayed, Bath’s Beno Obano could easily slot in alongside George and Will Stuart. Behind them there may well be the temptation to pick Maro Itoje, George Martin and Ollie Chessum in the same starting group, leaving Sam Underhill and Ben Earl to pick up where they left off in the bronze medal victory against Argentina.

England, however, also need more dynamic ball carriers and there must be a temptation to bring Bath’s Alfie Barbeary off the bench. Borthwick has also named Exeter’s Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau, while Harlequins’ Cunningham Chandler-South should be a candidate for England A’s match against Portugal next month. That match should also offer opportunities for Sale’s promising prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour and Newcastle’s impressive young openback Guy Pepper. New names, new and exciting possibilities. The future begins here.

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