England captain Owen Farrell is expected to be dropped for Saturday’s Six Nations match against France, with Marcus Smith set to earn a recall at fly-half.
Farrell has started all three of England’s games under Steve Borthwick, but England’s new head coach, who replaced Eddie Jones in December, is now set to make the biggest call of his short tenure.
It will be the first time that the 31-year-old Farrell has been dropped for England since the 2015 World Cup, and it could prove to be a pivotal decision with the 2023 edition of the tournament coming up in September.
With England vice-captain Courtney Lawes absent through injury, Ellis Genge is expected to lead out his country for the first time.
Borthwick is set to confirm his 23-player squad for the Twickenham encounter at 1:30pm on Thursday.
Smith and Farrell both started England’s first game under Borthwick, a 23-29 defeat to Scotland, but the 24-year-old Harlequins star was then dropped to the bench for wins over Italy and Wales, featuring for just a total of nine minutes across the two games.
Borthwick released Smith from England’s training squad last week, enabling him to gain match time and put in an impressive performance as Harlequins thrashed Exeter in the Premiership.
Farrell, who led England to the final of the 2019 World Cup, has struggled to find his best form recently, with his goal-kicking struggles leading him to turn to England legend Jonny Wilkinson for assistance.
England go into Saturday’s fixture third in the Six Nations standings, level on points with Scotland above them and France below.
Grand Slam hopefuls Ireland, who are five points clear at the top, face Scotland on Sunday before finishing their campaign against England the following weekend.
Sinfield: Wonderful competition for places at fly-half
England defence coach Kevin Sinfield spoke earlier this week about the squad’s “wonderful competition” for places at fly-half.
George Ford trained with England during the fallow week when Smith was given the opportunity to return to Harlequins, but has been released back to Sale ahead of the France clash.
“He [Marcus Smith] was outstanding [for Harlequins vs Exeter],” Sinfield told Sky Sports News. “And I have to say over the last six weeks in training, he’s been excellent, and we have some wonderful competition in that position in Owen [Farrell], George [Ford] and Fin Smith – who was with us earlier in the campaign.
“Those boys have been outstanding, so competitive, the standard of training has gone through the roof. So to have Marcus back and available is great.
“Whether people believe us or not, we felt it was the right thing for him to go back and play with his club to get minutes, because his time on the field has been limited over the last three weeks, and he’s gone back and was great.
“Yeah massively [tough to leave Ford out]. I worked with George in my time at Leicester, and he’s as good as any fly-half out there.
“He’s very much in the mix. I don’t think there’s much between the three of them at this moment in time, but finding the right combinations for the game, understanding the threat France pose is why we’ve got to where we’ve got to.
“We’ll get to see where we’re at and what strides we’ve made vs France.
“When you come up against this type of opposition, it’s a huge challenge and Test for everybody.
“An England vs France game at Twickenham is pretty special.”