When it comes to backlines, two fly-halves is company. Deploying three at once, as Steve Borthwick could do during Saturday’s meeting with Chile, risks a cluttered crowd.
England have not managed many prolonged passages of accurate, incisive attack recently. Since the beginning of 2022, you might pick out the end of the first Test and the beginning of the second against Australia. There was the thrilling finale to salvage a draw with New Zealand and the second quarter of an eventual loss to Scotland seven months ago.
Ollie Lawrence’s try in Cardiff was well-worked and, lastly, England finished strongly to land a bonus-point victory over Japan last weekend. All but one of those six sequences – the Lawrence score against Wales – were conducted by a pair of playmakers in tandem. Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell were on the pitch for four of them.
That particular 10-12 combination has its sceptics, yet produced some slick stuff. As part of a 10-15 creative axis, Smith and Farrell will be able to tap into the cohesion that they developed as a 10-12 duo. Theoretically, a centre partnership of Elliot Daly and Ollie Lawrence centres will give the starting backline better balance as well. Each of the top five Test teams in the world post playmakers at full-back to complement their fly-half.
What about three fly-halves, then, should Ford appear off the bench and nudge Farrell to inside centre with Smith staying on the pitch? Well, there is not much in the way of precedent.
During the 2010s, Australia occasionally had three of Berrick Barnes, Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, Matt Giteau and James O’Connor on the pitch together at any one time. Beale and O’Connor, though, could cover wing as well as full-back.
Saracens spent most of last season with Alex Goode and Max Malins, both of them age-grade fly-halves, complementing Farrell and Elliot Daly. Borthwick has three of those in his line-up for the Chile game, with Smith aiming to emulate Goode as a conduit to Farrell and Henry Arundell hoping to be put into space.
At this World Cup, Italy are experimenting with ways of uniting Tommaso Allan, Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo, while South Africa may at some stage have Manie Libbok, Handré Pollard and either Damian Willemse or Willie le Roux on the field together.
England’s situation is different, because Ford is an out-and-out fly-half and Smith is a rookie full-back. In harness with Farrell, those two would certainly organise their team-mates into precise patterns. England would surely be able to impart plenty of width. The other backs on the field, beyond the scrum-halves and depending on other replacements, would be three of Lawrence, Daly, Joe Marchant Malins and Arundell. Would that be balanced enough? Farrell would definitely need to hit a lot of rucks.
Instead, it might be more beneficial to look at the Ford-Farrell partnership with Lawrence at outside centre and Daly somewhere in the back three. Neither Malins nor Arundell has had a run at full-back under Borthwick, either.
Smith’s recent impact as an emergency full-back deserves credit. Sometimes teams stumble upon tactical tweaks that enhance their potential. England have been bold here. Proposed by Kevin Sinfield, the ploy was almost certainly a bid to make sure the side could retain two distributors despite Farrell’s suspension. Henry Slade had been overlooked and they were never going to pick either Smith or Ford at inside centre. Smith was trialled at full-back in warm-up defeats by Ireland and Fiji before Smith replaced Freddie Steward in Nice with around 12 minutes to go.
England had just scored, thanks to Ford’s kick-pass to Steward, to go 27-12 up. The result was beyond doubt, yet their attacking play had suffered from a lack of depth, with Daly needing to roam off his wing as a secondary playmaker. That much was clear from the first minute.
As Steward gathers Japan’s clearance following the kick-off and returns it, Daly moves in-field from the left wing:
On the next phase, Ben Earl carries and Daly is nestled in behind Ford:
The ball sweeps towards the near touchline with Ford finding Daly, who nudges through a grubber that is spilled by Semisi Masirewa to surrender a five-metre scrum:
From this set-piece, we see how England’s back line selection limits them because the approach is obvious. Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant are always likely to cut short lines, with Daly arcing around and Steward staying put:
Sure enough, Marchant carries on the first phase:
Moments later, Steward, who is more comfortable carving out-to-in angles than he is linking with his back three, pushes flat and offers himself to Alex Mitchell. Ford and Daly are out the back…
…but the ball goes to Steward and there is a spill:
Daly and Steward did occasionally hold their depth to help Ford find width. Here, Daly swings around Ford behind a three-man forward pod…
…and Ben Earl eventually breaks clear out wide:
This attack led to Courtney Lawes’ try.
Here, though, we see another instance of England’s limitations. Ford has Billy Vunipola and Marchant offering themselves flat. Steward and Daly are out wide, but the pull-back option is Tuilagi:
The ball is never likely to go anywhere else other than short:
Smith’s introduction injected England with verve on the counter and in broken-field situations. He helps move the ball across the pitch from his recovered box-kick:
Thought this was a significant moment. Shows England can be a bit more ambitious early in an attacking sequence after recovering Youngs' kick (a la France). Earl > Smith > Ford > Lawrence and the ball is across the pitch into space. This was how Tigers developed, too. pic.twitter.com/BaHfM67Bif
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) September 18, 2023
And heads up the field with an intuitive support line…
…before picking up a second touch and offloading to Ollie Lawrence:
On the final play, prior to Marchant’s try, Smith swings around this breakdown with Ford in the manner of a traditional full-back:
He takes a pull-back behind Earl’s short line, slips past Rikiya Matsuda and feeds Jonny May:
In many ways, Smith is suited to full-back. The position affords him space to use his evasive footwork, not just when returning long kicks but also when arcing around into second- or third-receiver, as he does in the clip above. From a deeper standpoint, he can also scan and identify opportunities. Smith’s versatility, as well as that of Marchant and Daly, also gives Borthwick scope to assemble six forwards on the bench. That said, fitting Smith, Ford and Farrell into the same match-day 23 will get more difficult from the Samoa encounter onwards.
Back in February 2020, for the first game of this World Cup cycle against France, Eddie Jones did give George Furbank a Test debut at full-back behind the Ford-Farrell double-act. Furbank, of course, became an emergency fly-half and started there against Tonga the following November.
Otherwise, a midfield of Ford, Farrell and Henry Slade was probably the closest England came to a backline of three fly-halves in the Jones era. It produced some sparkling attack, especially in the first half of the 38-38 draw with Scotland in 2019. Smith, Farrell and Slade were all present as the All Blacks were bamboozled at Twickenham last November. Guy Porter, May and Steward were the other outside backs.
However, a Ford-Farrell-Slade midfield also caused England to attack laterally at times without a hard-carrying focal point. Slade occasionally looked like a passenger.
England cannot afford to carry any of those at this World Cup, and will dearly want to maintain impetus with a convincing victory over Chile.