Marcus Smith was in match-winner mode again on Saturday and will be England’s No 10 in the Six Nations, no question. But Eddie Jones should shelve plans for a playmaker alliance with Owen Farrell, at least temporarily.
When Harlequins finally found a way past Exeter on Saturday, it was Smith who made it happen. As he did against South Africa in November, the precocious playmaker maintained his daring streak in search of a breakthrough.
He wasn’t imperious throughout but when Quins needed him to pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat, the fly-half did so by creating Andre Esterhuizen’s late try with a cross-kick and then dispatched the decisive, wide conversion off a post.
Owen Farrell should be given time to get back in the groove before returning for England
England head coach Eddie Jones has other options, such as Marcus Smith and George Ford
English rugby’s new poster boy has not been operating at his peak lately but the signs are that he is on an upward curve again ahead of the England squad announcement a week on Tuesday.
Jones wants the leeway to pick 32 players and that might provide a selection reprieve for one of the country’s experienced No 10s. But which one?
George Ford has been the best fly-half in the league all season and the Leicester talisman deserves a recall.
In contrast, Owen Farrell has been out of action for two months, recovering from ankle surgery. The perception is that he must be a shoo-in for inclusion, but that should not be the case. The 30-year-old is the established England captain, but that status must not provide a free pass.
Farrell has only played five games since being dropped from the Lions’ match-day squad ahead of their series decider in South Africa last July.
In his absence, England beat the Springboks with Smith pulling the strings and Courtney Lawes leading the team —with considerable authority. Farrell should not be selected on reputation next week. It would be a powerful statement to insist he earns a return like anyone else would have to.
The logical step for Jones would be to name Smith (left) and Ford (right) but not Farrell
He is not the best English 10 or 12 and has not been in vintage Test form for a long time.
Perhaps Farrell still has the credentials to scale the heights again — he certainly has the will — but first he must prove his readiness at Saracens.
The club would be delighted to have him when he would normally be away.
Farrell is on course for a comeback on January 23, five days after Jones names his squad. If he is not given special treatment he could play four games for his club, miss the early Six Nations fixtures in Scotland and Italy, then come into contention from round three.
The logical step would be for Jones to name Smith and Ford but not Farrell at this stage.
One lesson from the last Six Nations is that England cannot carry players lacking game-time.
Let Farrell get into the groove at Saracens. Let Lawes carry on as captain. Let Henry Slade continue as a second playmaker in midfield. And let Ford return to support and challenge Smith.
Then, if Farrell is playing well by mid-February, he can be considered on merit. When it comes to justifying a Test place, there should be no exemptions.
Ioan Lloyd delivered an act of sorcery to set up Bristol’s bonus-point try against Sale. It was a stunning pass and performance from the 20-year-old, who must be due a Wales recall.
Harlequins struggled to put Exeter away on Saturday, especially in the 50th minute when they created a four-on-one scoring chance but Tyrone Green’s pass went into touch.
Northampton’s creative quality at Kingston Park was summed up when their hooker Sam Matavesi sidestepped past two defenders to set up Courtnall Skosan’s 10th try in 10 Saints games.
England prop Bevan Rodd lost his head when a scrum penalty went against Sale after they had been dominant but not rewarded. He had a point, but was soon replaced for his own good.
There was a class strike from Rotimi Segun for Saracens, as the wing darted through a cluster of defenders with electric footwork to go over. It was a close-range but eye-catching try.
Welsh Rugby Union should pursue a relocation plan
There is understandable resistance to staging the entire Six Nations in England to ensure capacity crowds — despite the obvious financial logic — but the Welsh Rugby Union should press ahead with a contingency plan to move their first ‘home’ game to London.
There’s not much point holding out for a favour from their Government, who seem intent on maintaining a hardline ban on mass gatherings. Playing behind closed doors in Cardiff again would be a ruinous, miserable development, so the WRU should pursue a relocation plan.
Doing so would reinforce the economic benefit their fixtures provide.
They would have enough time to sell tickets in a way that would assure them of partisan support in London. Meanwhile, the prospect of European Cup ties all going ahead as scheduled next weekend is unthinkable. Prepare for more upheaval in the game.
The Welsh Rugby Union should press ahead with a contingency plan to move their first ‘home’ game to London
Northampton should target Warren Gatland to replace Chris Boyd
Chris Boyd will leave Northampton at the end of the season to return home to New Zealand. He is a popular figure who has built a positive, entertaining team, but it has not quite worked out. One domestic cup success in the last four years is not enough for the club, who have good support, a good ground and sky-high ambitions.
The last fortnight has encapsulated their hot-and-cold nature under Boyd — badly beaten at home by Saracens before running riot in a big win at Newcastle. It will be interesting to see if Northampton promote assistant coaches Sam Vesty and Phil Dowson or target another pedigree recruit.
If they want to shift towards greater pragmatism, perhaps it makes sense to contact Warren Gatland. He was on their radar many years ago and could fit the bill again, but it will be a hefty bill to hire him.
Northampton should consider bringing in Warren Gatland (pictured) as a replacement for Chris Boyd
THE LAST WORD
Rugby has enough issues without any need for a bizarre, unnecessary branding row. Marco Masotti, the New York-based owner of South African franchise Natal Sharks has taken to ‘trolling’ Sale on social media, due to their use of the same nickname.
Masotti has mockingly suggested the Cheshire club should become Sale Tuna and it is understood his desire is to trademark the Sharks brand in the UK.
This is ludicrous. Sale have used their existing name since the late 1990s. The Sharks from South Africa are unlikely to sell too many shirts in the north west of England and Sale aren’t about to open a retail outlet in downtown Durban.
It’s another aggressive stance from a man who threatened to take legal action against World Rugby for daring to put Rassie Erasmus on trial. The sport needs unity, not in-fighting.
The branding row surrounding Sale Sharks is uneccessary – rugby has enough issues