Marcus Smith must make way as England revamp midfield before Italy showdown

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England have broken up their contentious playmaking axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell as part of a revamped midfield named for Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Italy.

Having started the last eight Tests together, Smith has been demoted to the bench to accommodate Owen Farrell’s selection at fly-half instead of inside centre.

Former England boss Eddie Jones hoped the creative alliance would blossom in time for the World Cup and Steve Borthwick retained the duo for his first game in charge against Scotland last Saturday, but they have fired only sporadically as a partnership.

“My policy always has been – and I’ve been very clear about this – that I pick a team for the game we are playing,” Borthwick said.

“I’ve been very clear that every game matters for England. I’m not looking to games beyond or aspects beyond in months to come – I focus upon this week and that’s what I’m doing with this team.

“I feel blessed that we’ve got some fantastic fly-halves in this country, which is brilliant for the competition for places.”

Borthwick completed a significant overhaul of the midfield by replacing Joe Marchant with Henry Slade at outside centre while Ollie Lawrence fills the vacancy created at 12.

Slade has recovered from the hip injury that forced him to sit out the 29-23 Calcutta Cup defeat in round one, with the hard-running Lawrence promoted off the bench.

Owen Farrell will start at fly-half against Italy
Owen Farrell will start at fly-half against Italy (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“Ollie Lawrence has played really well all season for his club. We’ve got some exciting players there in the centre and that’s why I decided to make the change.”

Only one change has been made to the pack, with turnover specialist Jack Willis replacing Ben Curry at openside flanker for his first start since suffering a horrific knee injury in the same fixture two years ago.

Willis would have been involved against Scotland only for his commitments with Toulouse to disrupt his availability having joined the French club in the wake of Wasps being placed into administration.

“I’ve spoken to Jack each and every week since I took this role. He had a knock and wasn’t playing for the first few weeks of January. He’s worked tremendously hard to get to this point,” Borthwick said.

“He’s then gone and played for Toulouse. He’s come back in to England, he’s trained with us and then gone and played for his club.

“And he’s managed all those demands in a really mature, professional manner. He adds to a really competitive back row that that we have.”

Henry Arundell is poised to win his fourth cap after being named on the bench where he will provide back three cover, the ankle injury that forced him to miss the autumn now fully healed.

Also present among the replacements is Alex Mitchell, who has beaten England’s most capped player Ben Youngs for the role of supporting starting scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet.

England have won all 29 previous meetings with Italy but the Azzurri toppled Wales and Australia last year and took France to the wire on Sunday, pointing to a team on the rise.

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