CHRIS FOY: Should England stick with maverick Marcus Smith at full-back for huge Rugby World Cup South Africa semi-final showdown or go for high-ball specialist Freddie Steward?
- It is widely assumed that Steward would return to No 15 against the Springboks
- NIK SIMON: Rassie Erasmus begins his mind games with coach Steve Borthwick
England are waiting with ‘fingers crossed’ to discover if Marcus Smith will be fit to play against South Africa – but the uncertainty about their full-back plans could be a helpful smokescreen ahead of the World Cup semi-final.
The national team returned to training on Tuesday at their new base on the outskirts of Paris, and Smith was among a small group of players on a ‘modified’ programme. He started in the 15 shirt against Fiji in Marseille last Sunday and took brutal punishment in the line of duty, but showed remarkable resilience in withstanding the onslaught.
When cameras were present for the start of England’s first training session since that thunderous quarter-final encounter, Smith stayed apart from the main group. Defence coach Kevin Sinfield expressed confidence that Smith would be available to face the Springboks if selected, then paid a warm tribute to his gallantry last weekend.
‘We’d all agree he’s a world-class 10, but last week I felt he was a world-class 15 as well,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to remember this guy has only played 100, 120 minutes as a full back in Test rugby so far. What he’s done on the training field for it has been outstanding.
‘If there was any doubt about how brave and courageous he is, you saw it with your own eyes. The bloke got his face smashed and threw his body into tackles. The guys are in full admiration for how he’s gone about it.’
It is widely assumed that Freddie Steward will return to No 15 against the Springboks
Marcus Smith impressed his fellow team-mates for his display against Fiji on the weekend
It has been widely assumed that Freddie Steward would return to No 15 against the Springboks due to his prowess under the high ball – a tactic South Africa will use more than Fiji – but Sinfield’s words leave the door ajar for the possibility of Smith retaining his place.
Earlier, at the start of training, Sinfield noticeably spent time working closely with Steward – the Leicester full-back who last week suffered the rare shock to the system of being left out of the match-day 23.
If no doubt aids England’s cause to have the element of surprise, with confusion about who they intend to deploy as their last line of defence.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus on Tuesday night attempted to predict England’s team for the World Cup semi-final – although he stopped short of selecting their full-back.
The mischievous South African could not decide between Smith and Steward, as he awaits Steve Borthwick’s team announcement on Thursday.
Erasmus said: ‘Firstly, guessing their team it’s interesting – Marcus, will he or Freddie play? Marcus has the massive X-factor while Freddie is unbelievable under the high ball.
‘Will Owen play inside centre with Tuilagi outside or will Ford play fly-half and drop-goal everything there?’ Sinfield’s tribute to Smith for his handling of physical adversity was quickly followed by a tribute to Steward for his handling of selection adversity.
The South African coach guessed Steve Borthwick’s line up ahead of the announcement
‘Clearly he’s disappointed, as anyone would be, missing out on a quarter-final, but he’s responded as we’d expect him to. He’s a great lad.’
Borthwick has not once named an unchanged England XV since he took charge at the end of last year and his assistant hinted at more horses-for-courses thinking, as he added: ‘Our team has changed every game throughout the World Cup.
‘Steve is very specific – when he selects the team, he does it in the knowledge he thinks it will give us the best chance of winning that game.
‘Just because Fred wasn’t selected last week, doesn’t mean he had done anything wrong, he has actually done a lot of great things and a lot of things right. But Steve and the coaching team thought it was the right thing to go with Marcus.’
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