Marcus Smith has been released from England’s training squad this week to get game time with Harlequins but faces a battle to make the squad to face France in two weeks after George Ford was included in a trimmed 26-man group announced on Tuesday.
Smith came on in the last minute of Saturday’s victory over Wales, after another appearance off the bench against Italy as coach Steve Borthwick dispensed with the twin-playmaker role and installed captain Owen Farrell as his fly-half.
Smith was among several players released for the weekend during the Six Nations’ fallow week. Winger Max Malins has an ankle injury and will not train until next week, while Jonnny May, who has not been involved in Borthwick’s three games so far, has been recalled.
“The decision was that Marcus would benefit from game time at his club this weekend and having that match sharpness,” Borthwick said.
“We’re not in test week, we’re in a training camp week. George has played for his club at the weekend. This is an opportunity for Marcus to go and play. He’s had very limited game time because of the nature of the game and the decision I made on Saturday, so I thought this was a step forward for him.”
Ford has not played for England for a year after suffering a serious ankle injury in last season’s Premiership final but is back in contention after a handful of appearances for new club Sale.
“He’s looking tremendously sharp and in great condition and that shows the work he’s done in terms of his rehab,” Borthwick said. “He’s clearly a very experienced player. That adds to the strength we have in that position.”
England host France on March 11 before signing off in Dublin a week later when they are likely to be standing in the way of an Irish grand slam and Borthwick said he was pleased with the progress made in his first three games since replacing Eddie Jones.
England began the championship with a 29-23 home defeat by Scotland. Borthwick’s side followed with a 31-14 victory over Italy. They were dominant for most of the match, scoring three tries from rolling mauls, but lost focus in the latter stages allowing Italy to stage something of a rally.
They then played Wales in Cardiff last Saturday, where they looked in total control for most of the game but only put it to bed with their third try five minutes from time for a 20-10 victory.
That left England alongside Scotland and France on 10 points, five adrift of leaders Ireland in the Six Nations standings.
“I’ve talked a number of times about getting strong basics as any team that wants to build and compete needs that,” Borthwick said. “I think you can see the improvement in that regard.
“I think you can also see that fight in the players. You can see where they have faced some adversity in games, situations where they’ve been down on the scoreboard, been under pressure, and the players have fought through that really well.
“We are rebuilding the team and have a lot of work to do but you are starting to see some foundations. I said it would be a pretty basic plan at the start, and we’re just trying to get the foundations right.”