If you take a look at the teams who have won World Cups, you realise each had an outstanding No 10 — a kingpin fly-half who was the undisputed first-choice and arguably the most important player in the team.
Over the years, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky, Stephen Larkham, Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter and Handre Pollard have fulfilled that role for their respective nations.
For the teams they played in, there was no doubt who would be starting as playmaker. In 2003 for example, Wilkinson was our No 1 with England and Paul Grayson was back-up. The whole world knew who our starting 10 was.
As the England team of 2023 look to finish the Six Nations on a high and bid to win the World Cup later this year, there remains plenty of debate over who Steve Borthwick should play at fly-half.
Should it be Owen Farrell or Marcus Smith? What about George Ford?
Marcus Smith is back in the England fold after being left out of their training camp last week
It is still not completely clear whether Steve Borthwick sees Smith or Owen Farrell (above) as his long-term No 10
Even after Ford was released from the squad preparing to face France at Twickenham on Saturday, I have concerns that the confusion and hotly contested debate around the No 10 position will eat into the psyche of the team and the plans of new head coach Borthwick to get England back to the top of the tree.
There has already been and will continue to be lots of talk in the build-up to the France game about who will start at fly-half. It is proving a big distraction for the coach and team alike.
That was the case at the start of the tournament but it has now gone to another level after Ford returned from a long-term injury and Smith produced an impressive performance for Harlequins at the weekend after initially being dropped by England.
For the good of England’s progression, Borthwick needs to nail his colours to the mast in terms of who he picks at fly-half. Some might say he has already done so by naming Farrell as captain for this Six Nations and picking him ahead of Smith for the games against Italy and Wales. Today, my choice would be Farrell, too.
Twelve to 18 months ago, I was calling for Smith to start so he could get the time needed ahead of the World Cup. Now, that time has been lost. It was wasted by the previous regime.
Importantly, that time has also been lost in finding the right No 9 and No 12. Jack van Poortvliet has great promise but is too inconsistent. Ollie Lawrence has stepped up in the last two games, albeit against the weakest teams in the tournament. Both need more time and Farrell offers the experienced hand to guide them.
Much is said of Farrell being more reserved than Smith or Ford. That he is, but with more attacking players selected around him like Max Malins, Henry Slade, Henry Arundell and Anthony Watson, the backline can improve, and fast. Consistency is key and even more so if fast ball becomes England’s mantra.
If Borthwick continues down the Farrell path and is resolute in doing so, then I applaud him because as an international coach, you must have the courage of your convictions with selection. It is the most important part of the job at Test level.
What I do not want to see is Smith brought on to make a 20-minute impact. Pick and back your fly-half for 80 minutes and make it clear that he is the main man. If there is an injury, you will be surprised how fast the side will rally around the ‘understudy’.
That adds sharpness. You cannot allow confusion in this vital position. It will be fascinating to see who Borthwick selects for France but all the signs point to Farrell, who seems to fit the Borthwick mould. He appears to want a structured game with lots of kicking and that is not exactly Smith’s raison d’etre.
George Ford has been left out of this week’s training camp but could work his way back into contention for the World Cup
Steve Borthwick must make a decision on England’s long-term 10 and stick with him
It cannot be forgotten that Ford was a firm favourite of Borthwick and was central to his plans when they worked together at Leicester to win the Premiership. He will very much remain part of this conundrum moving forward, even if he won’t face France.
Whatever happens and whoever Borthwick thinks is his first-choice in his heart of hearts, I urge him to make that call quickly, even though it’s a big decision.
If you want a chance of winning this World Cup then Farrell has to be selected. If you want to win in four years’ time, then start to build your team around Smith.
Fly-half is such a key position. It’s like a quarterback in American football. All the best NFL teams know who their star quarterback is. There is no debate. In rugby, you only have to look at world No 1 Ireland to see Johnny Sexton is their big cheese. But France are falling into the same hole as England with Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert.
Having two, or in England’s case three, excellent fly-halves might seem a strength on paper, but it can be more of a weakness.
Like Borthwick, France head coach Fabien Galthie needs to take hold of his situation at No 10. The confusion may undermine both teams’ long-term chances.
This week is the time to put that confusion to bed.