Is England's Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis doomed?

Is England’s Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis doomed?

Is Eddie Jones in a race against time to get the alliance of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell shooting, or is it simply the case that the two natures of rugby are so far apart that they will struggle to ever form a partnership in the two complementary key playing roles at numbers 10 and 12?

The truth is that Jones would love to incorporate both Farrell and Smith into the England team together, whatever. ‘Faz’ has been one of the most influential leaders in Northern Hemisphere rugby for as long as anyone can remember. Smith represents the next generation of talent in the English Premiership pipeline.

It’s a coaching conundrum Jones has struggled with before, in his other long-term tenure as a national coach with Australia. The high point of reaching a World Cup final against England in 2003 was followed by a disastrous eight-game losing streak in 2005 that saw him near the exit door as head coach. Wallabies.

The team that Jones inherited from World Cup winner Rod Macqueen never made the proper transition to a new era of success, with a new generation of players. With England, Eddie’s record as a head coach stood at 94% in his first two seasons (2016-2017) with the team built by Stuart Lancaster. Since 2018, it has fallen to 58% against the top eight rugby nations (Ireland, France, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina). His record against Six Nations opponents (excluding Italy) over the last five seasons is barely 50%, with 13 wins out of 25 matches.

The issue of Smith and Farrell’s connection in the England midfield, therefore, repeats the Gordian knot in Eddie Jones’ own coaching career in quite concrete terms. Eddie wants and needs the link to work.

Before the start of the 2022 Six Nations, the England head coach commented:

“You’re talking about Marcus Smith, Owen is going to be an important player for Marcus. Marcus could be an absolutely brilliant 10 so he needs to have a 12 next to him that can run the game for him and that’s where Owen is so good.

After the two played just 68 minutes together against the Wallabies in the fall, the dominant emotion linking the two players was hope. As Smith himself said:

“He [Farrell] is a massive competitor and wears his heart on his sleeve. More than that, he has brilliant vision and skills down the line.

“We trained together a few weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. I loved learning from him and sharing his ideas with him.

“We complement each other well – we both see the game quite similarly. I hope we can both come together and get the best out of each other.

“Hopefully I can be there to get the best out of him and allow him to show his skills on the park. Hopefully he can allow me to show my best as well…

“Hopefully we can put our competitive edge together to try and get a win in the test series. [against Australia]. We both want to do it. We talked about it at length. »

From an England supporter’s perspective, that might be a little too optimistic, with too little factual support for comfort. The experience will take time to evolve, but Eddie’s career in England could burn on a short fuse if his charges lose the July series against his country of birth.

He has already pledged to play the pair again in the crucial second Test in Brisbane, and pleaded for patience after the game at Optus Stadium:

“It was a good start. These are tests of a year and a half. I thought there were opportunities that we weren’t clinical enough to take, that they created. They will go very well together, but it takes time.

Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of the suit that stand out from the first test.

Early in the game, it seemed the intent was to insert Farrell – nominally number 12 – at first receiver during structured play:

He was England’s favorite model for much of the game. ‘Faz’ stands at first receiver (1), with Marcus phantom behind second point guard (2). The idea is to connect the Harlequins man with tall runner outside of him (6ft 5in rear back Freddie Steward to 3) with his center partner, teammate Joe Marchant pushed one point further towards the edge at 4:

On other occasions, Marcus sought to connect with big men like Joe Cokanasiga of the same structure:

After Smith receives the ball from Farrell, he has big Joe inside and another strong tackle breaker, Jack Nowell, outside, with Marchant again pushed to the edge beyond them. Improper handling sabotages movement and destroys any attacking momentum. The idea clearly makes sense, as Smith is used to playing with one big man inside of him (usually number 8 Alex Dombrandt) and another outside (number 12 Andre Esterhuizen) in his Harlequin club.

There were a lot more problems when Smith and Farrell stayed in their respective roles, with Smith taking the ball to first receiver. There were a few simple disconnects:

It’s all rather too hesitant as Marcus outclasses for the ball off the front line of Billy Vunipola, and the tablet falls between two stools. Smith was also vulnerable to tackle roll when he took the ball down the line himself:

hooker wallabies Dave Porecki seeks to dispossess Smith at both rucks. In the former, there’s no Cokanasiga, Nowell, or Steward sticking out of his shoulder, effectively isolating him as a runner. England received the penalty but they would have hoped for much, much more so close to the Australian goal line. In the second example, Steward was flagged out of play on Smith’s outside shoulder, and on that occasion Porecki successfully completes his task.

One of the big issues England have to deal with with Smith at first receiver and Farrell at second is the depth of space between them:

There are about three meters on the ball pass from Vunipola to Smith, which is bad enough. There are five more before the ball can reach Farrell at second receiver, meaning a kick is the only option on the play.

In the modern game, this type of depth also negates width in attack rather than generating it:

As Farrell’s long pass reaches Lewis Ludlam on the left edge of the field, the Australian defense is well positioned and in fact has a three against two near the touchline.

Put it all together, and there was an uncomfortable hodgepodge of attacking ideas lacking the necessary unity of goal. The following sequence begins with Smith picking the wrong support player on an inviting short side:

The sensible option would be to use jamie george (1) on the short ball and forces two Wallabies defenders (Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi) to condense around the tackle, with the short side still open in the next phase after a lightning-fast ruck. Instead, the ball widens and there is a long lag in recycling.

There is still far too much distance between the different components of the room – between Maro Itoje and Smith in the two lines of attack, between Smith and Ellis Genge outside of him, and between Smith and Farrell ten yards behind him. It puts England’s handling and passing skills under too many avoidable strains.

It also makes an error much more likely on the immediately following phase:

Owen Farrell passes Smith’s pass, and that’s the end of the attack sequence. It was a symbolic moment in the proceedings: Farrell cannot play the same role as Andre Esterhuizen made outside of Smith for Quins. He either ends up playing too deep or forcing the problem down the line.

Even when England scored a try involving passes from numbers 10 and 12, it was down to individual brilliance rather than an opportunity created by the cohesion of the attacking pattern:

Even after Henry Arundell receives the ball near the left touchline, the depth of Farrell’s positioning means the Australian defense is in A1 form. There are two tackles directly in front of Arundell (Noah Lolesio and Andrew Kellaway), and an insurance policy (James O’Connor) behind them. Only the prodigious strength of the young London Irishman in contact and his lively first step make all the difference.

The jury is still very much convinced of the possibilities of the “new” (Marcus Smith) and the “old” (Owen Farrell) to blend effectively into the English midfield in time for the World Cup. It represents the last frontier that England head coach Eddie Jones failed to conquer in his time with the Wallabies (2001-2005). Plus, Eddie is burning on a short media fuse that could blow the suit to smithereens before 2023 arrives. If Eddie loses 3-0 in July, “Marcus and the Faz”, as enjoyable as it is, will never make a splash on the biggest of stages.

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