Marcus Smith at Fullback - Will it Work?
Marcus Smith’s introduction added real pace to England’s backline on Sunday evening, transforming the style of play from a poorly executed reliance on kicking to a fast paced and, more importantly, ball in hand style of attack.
However, what may have caught the eye was where he was positioned; rather than playing in his usual position of fly-half, Smith was instead deployed at fullback.
There has been much talk about this positional shift in the build-up to the World Cup, and if Sunday’s display was anything to go by giving Smith the number 15 jersey could be the key to unlocking England’s true attacking potential.
But why does Smith at fullback work?
Firstly playing at fullback will naturally find him closer to the edges of play where the play is more broken. This is Marcus Smith’s speciality. He thrives in the chaos of broken field for Harlequins with his turn of pace and eye for a gap. In a Harlequins jersey, Smith flourishes in broken field and his speed allows him to turn a slight gap into a dangerous attack.
He has tried this at international level, however with the typically more structured defence his club form has not fully been replicated in an England shirt. At international level, the gaps in the defence don’t appear as quickly as they do in the Premiership, so deploying him in the back-field will allow him to see the space and then attack it with his usual flare and ‘joue’.
We saw this on Sunday with his two line breaks. Both came close to the left wing where he was able to exploit the space and lack of structured defence to carry through the Japanese line and give England a great platform to attack.
Another way Smith at fullback works is his role as an extra playmaker.
We’ve already seen the dual-playmaker tactic with the Ford and Farrell axis, but this puts an extra playmaker behind the first line of attack rather than playing the playmakers next to each other.
Tucking the extra playmaker in behind the front line not only takes the pressure off Ford to be the source, but it also allows the play to be shifted wide quickly to create opportunity.
A good example of this was in the build up to Joe Marchant’s try. Ford passed the ball to Smith behind him who then brought Jonny May into play which set up the field position for the try.
But where does this experiment leave us?
Chile is the perfect chance to test Smith out for a full 80 in the 15 jersey. We have already seen him used there to good effect against Japan, but he needs proper minutes in that position to truly see if it has potential. However this could displace Steward, who is a world class operator especially under the high ball.
We have already seen a potential alternative for this too. England’s high ball kicks on Sunday were often put onto the wingers, leaving Daly and May to chase them; however Steward would be a far better alternative to collect the high ball than May.
The high kicks were the only part of the ‘Borthwick ball’ kicking game that worked against Japan, and if they still want to use this strategy whilst also wanting to attack the fringes and play to space moving Steward to the wing and bringing Smith in at fullback is probably the best solution.
This also cancels out any questions of Smith’s high ball prowess in defence, with the option to still move Steward or even Daly there in defence to cover any potential high balls, which again creates an opportunity to give the ball to Smith in unstructured field where he can cause chaos.
Smith at fullback works, and Chile is the perfect chance to do this for a full 80 minutes.