With England’s Rugby World Cup Semi-Final clash against South Africa fast approaching, Head Coach Steve Borthwick has to make some key selections to get the very best out of his side. One area of recent focus has been the positional swap of Marcus Smith from fly-half to fullback, in a move that pushed Freddie Steward out of the side.
The Leicester Tigers man was excluded from the entire match-day 23 which took on Fiji in last weekend’s quarter-final victory, and had to watch on from the stands as England recorded a 30-24 victory. Smith was beaten from pillar to post by the Pacific Islanders, and was forced off for a blood injury after a nasty head clash with Vinaya Habosi.
With no Steward on the bench, centre Ollie Lawrence came on for Smith, and forced a re-shuffle of the back line with Joe Marchant having a brief run out in the back-three. Steward’s potential involvement against South Africa is a key focus ahead of this week’s England squad announcement, with his added size, fullback experience and skillset under the high ball giving the 22-year-old the edge in many fans and pundits eyes, ahead of the Springboks clash.
Former England fly-half Toby Flood has previously sung Smith’s praises from a halfback’s perspective, and weighed in on the discussion regarding who Borthwick should pick in the number 15 jersey against South Africa. Speaking to BettingSites.co.uk, Flood said:
“With the aerial threat there is an argument for bringing back Freddie Steward. Marcus Smith didn’t rip things up but he brings something different to the team. Do you want to lose that ability to unlock defences?
“There were times when he nearly broke away against Fiji. I do worry that he might find himself out of the squad this weekend because of the aerial threat from South Africa. That is the way they score a lot of their tries.”
Another area of debate has been England’s number eight jersey, with Ben Earl taking the recent lead over his Saracens teammate Billy Vunipola. Vunipola is the sole specialist number eight in Steve Borthwick’s squad, yet the Head Coach has been impressed by Earl’s recent performances. Flood believes that England are ironing out the cracks in time for their semi-final showdown.
“You could argue England could change bits and pieces. Maybe a proper number eight in there who could control the back of the scrum. There’s an argument there.” Added the former Newcastle Falcon.
“Ben Earl has been very strong. But overall there’s not a huge amount England will want to change. England are playing their way into form.”
Despite Marcus Smith now taking a back-seat in the fly-half selection debate, the discussion still remains between Owen Farrell and George Ford. Both players have been excellent at the Rugby World Cup, with Ford leading the way by slotting all 27 points against Argentina, before Farrell returned from suspension, and bossed the games against Chile and Fiji. Flood added his two cents from a fly-half’s point of view, about who he believes will start in the 10 jersey against the Springboks.
“Steve Borthwick was always going to revert to Owen in the knockout stages. He brings solidarity and belief. He’s been there and done it a 100 times for England and Saracens.
“He is going to implement the game plan Steve wants. He is not captain through default. He has been there a long time and is a good leader. You have a guy who the team will look up to and have a huge amount of respect for. You could argue that George Ford is a better fly half.
“But at the same time what you want in a World Cup semi-final is a solid base, a man that understands the needs and wants of his team and how to turn the screw when needed. Owen is that man.”
Regardless of who starts at fly-half, one man who is expected to line-up alongside in the midfield is Manu Tuilagi. The Sale Sharks man has had an outstanding World Cup campaign, and has excelled in his midfield partnership alongside Joe Marchant. A convoluted re-shuffling saw Tuilagi pushed to outside centre as Borthwick attempted to utilise the Ford-Farrell axis against Samoa, with Tuilagi’s only slow outing coming against his nation of birth.
“Manu Tuilagi has been outstanding, the dominant back for England.” Flood said. “He is an incredible player considering what he has been through. He looks really fit and ready for this.”
“He knows this is possibly his last game For England so will be ready. He relishes the physicality.”
England will need Tuilagi at his physical best for the battle with the ‘Boks, as there is no side in the world more revered for their brute force around the pitch. Flood identifies the collision battle as the key area England need to win, if they want to make it to back-to-back Rugby World Cup Finals.
“Man for man if you took every member of that England team at their best you could argue that we were as good as them. They certainly have the ability. The skillset is certainly there.
“Where they might struggle is the sheer physicality. The Boks have big men everywhere. But it comes down to form and England are playing themselves into form and can be a very dangerous side. On their day they are good enough to beat South Africa.
“The metrics that South Africa use are the same as England will be using. It’s not hugely dissimilar. They will understand and know that. Knowing it is one thing however, stopping it is another. With the size they have, that is where it become really testing. They are a serious outfit.
“There is that DNA in them (South Africa). They don’t take a backward step. Everything is physically relentless. It wears you down. Every breakdown you are getting hit. Every contact.
“They never drop off. They keep coming, they keep whacking you. For me that is why they are so strong, especially in World Cups. It all breaks down to the breakdown and how well you can run the breakdown and that physical battle around the tackle area. South Africa just don’t give up.
“They make everything a mess. They batter you. There is no easy out. South Africa are so physical not least with Jesse Kriel in the centre. He is huge. It is relentless.”
Flood knows how good South Africa are on the Rugby World Cup stage. The fly-half made a replacement appearance for England, as they lost the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final to South Africa. Flood also watched on as the Springboks handed England a 36-0 thrashing in the 2007 Pool Stages, yet does not see this weekend’s match being as one-sided in Paris.
“Can they get ahead of South Africa on the scoreboard? You don’t even want to be chasing a game against South Africa. You are forced into errors. It is a much better place to be defending a lead in say the last 15 minutes of a World Cup knockout game. It almost becomes easy. You get off the floor and hit them, and repeat.
“That is a much safer place to be in a World Cup semi-final. You don’t want to be trying to create an opportunity and take risks. England need to be able to stay ahead. If they fall behind then it becomes a really tough task.”
“England found momentum in 2007 after losing 36-0 in the opening game against the Boks. They are finding momentum now. This team has kept winning.
“People are saying they are not playing very well, but the joy for England is they find themselves in a World Cup semi-final. They do have the quality and if they can just find that performance as they did against New Zealand in 2019, then suddenly they can become very dangerous.”
Despite Flood’s heart willing on England to win their second Rugby World Cup title, the former Leicester Tigers man sees no way passed the Springboks for Steve Borthwick’s side. His head is behind South Africa winning a fourth Rugby World Cup title, and being just the second team in history to retain the Web Ellis trophy, after Richie McCaw’s All Blacks of 2011 and 2015.
“I have backed South Africa from the start. I’d love England to win but I’ve just got something at the back of my mind that South Africa will win, but not by much.
“I think it will be close but South Africa by five to eight points. It won’t be a cricket score like 2007!”
“The France match would have taken a huge amount out of South Africa but if anyone can repeat it, it is South Africa. But don’t write off England. They have the ability. For any player being 80 minutes from a World Cup final brings an extra dynamic. They will put everything on the line. England will be able to raise their game.
“They will know what is coming. There is no question that they can’t get to the required level. It is just how long can they sustain it.”