England prop Joe Marler backs Marcus Smith to ‘thrive’ at full-back against Fiji

By Sports Desk October 13, 2023

Marcus Smith has been backed to deliver on the biggest night of his career after England gambled by picking the Harlequins magician at full-back for Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final against Fiji.

Smith will make only his second professional start in the number 15 jersey and, while he has also banked a number of influential cameos as a replacement, he remains a converted fly-half who is unproven in the position at the highest level.

England believe he will continue to thrive in his new role, providing a cutting edge in attack and a second ball-playing option, and have sacrificed the ultra dependable Freddie Steward to accommodate him.

Another seismic selection sees Owen Farrell replace George Ford at fly-half even though the Sale ringmaster has excelled at the World Cup, delivering man-of-the-match displays against Argentina and Japan.

All eyes will be on Smith, however, in the hope that he can reproduce the fireworks seen in the group match against Chile when he ran in two tries.

Harlequins team-mate Joe Marler has known the 24-year-old since he arrived at Twickenham Stoop as a teenager and quickly realised he was a special talent.

“Marcus is a big-match player. I’m really happy for him to get his opportunity to start again in a World Cup. He’ll thrive,” Marler said.

“He’s shown it off the bench in the moments we’ve needed him and I hope he can do that from the start.

“At the club he was confident early on, even to the point where I turn around and say ‘I’m going to have to say something to this guy, he’s gobbing off at me’. I’ve been at the club 10 years and he’s gobbing off at me.

“I was like ‘he’s a jumped up, entitled, little, private school kid’. And then when you realise how good he is at rugby and why he’s doing what he’s doing, I was like ‘I’m going to listen to him because he’s going to get us into positions where we can win more rugby games because he knows what he’s talking about’.

“He’s done it consistently at club level and now it’s about now doing it consistently at international level. What better place to do that than starting in the quarter-final?”

Farrell will dovetail with Smith in attack with the pair each operating at first and second receiver at different times. England’s captain has noted his team-mate’s appetite to take on the opposition.

“I’m impressed with how much Marcus wants to get after it – how much he wants the ball, how much he wants to make a difference,” Farrell said.

“From what I’ve seen so far the bigger the occasion, the more he wants to do that. It’s not like Marcus hasn’t played in big games – he’s won the Premierships.

“He wants to have a big impact on the game and so far he’s been doing that. I see it being no different this weekend.”

England field eight survivors from the starting XV that took on South Africa in the World Cup final four years ago and it could be a final appearance for several members of Borthwick’s squad – providing additional motivation against Fiji.

“There are definitely a number of us that won’t play for England again after this tournament,” Marler said.

“We have been together a number of years, we have built friendships and bonds. We want to give this our all and finish on a high.

“You never know when your last game is. You’ve got to make the most of what you can.”

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  • The Numbers Game: Three Lions target winning start against Serbia The Numbers Game: Three Lions target winning start against Serbia

    Looking to end 58 years of hurt, England get their Euro 2024 campaign under way against Serbia on Sunday.

    Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate has suggested it may be a case of all or nothing as he enters his fourth – and potentially final – major tournament at the helm.

    Southgate has transformed England from perennial underachievers to genuine contenders, overseeing a surprise fourth-place finish at the 2018 World Cup, then seeing the nation's old nemesis – the penalty spot – haunt them in the Euro 2020 final versus Italy and a 2022 World Cup quarter-final against France.

    Penalty shoot-outs excluded, the Three Lions have only lost one of their last 18 games at the Euros (10 wins, seven draws), going down by a 2-1 scoreline in an infamous last-16 clash with Iceland in 2016.

    Despite the same opponents inflicting another defeat upon England in their final pre-Euros friendly last week, the Opta supercomputer makes them tournament favourites.

    They lift the trophy in 19.9 per cent of competition simulations, just ahead of France (19.1 per cent).

    Serbia, however, will be looking to throw a spanner in the works on their first Euros appearance as an independent nation, with the presence of several capable attackers leading some to tout them as a potential surprise package.

    Here, we delve into the Opta data to preview Sunday's game.

    What's expected?   

    England have started all three of their major tournaments under Southgate with a victory, and the Opta supercomputer is backing them to do so again in Germany.

    They are given a 62.1 per cent chance of a win, with Serbia only triumphing in 16 per cent of scenarios and the spoils being shared in 21.9 per cent.

     

    In the supercomputer's Group C predictions, the Three Lions are given a huge 95.4 per cent chance of reaching the last 16, finishing top in 66 per cent of simulations. 

    Serbia advance in 56.2 per cent of projections, fewer than Denmark (69.2 per cent) but more than Slovenia (42.1 per cent). However, they are only given a 12 per cent chance of topping the pool.

    This will be England and Serbia's first encounter since the latter re-emerged as an independent state in 2006. In fact, since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, England have only faced Serbia and Montenegro once, winning 2-1 in a 2003 friendly.

    The Three Lions are, though, unbeaten in their last six matches against Serbia or Yugoslavia, winning each of the last four.

    Their most recent defeat to them was a particularly notable one, though, as Alf Ramsey's world champions lost 2-1 in the semi-finals of Euro 1968, a four-team competition that saw Yugoslavia finish as runners-up.

    Attack the best form of defence for Serbia

    With Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Cole Palmer, Jarrod Bowen, Anthony Gordon and Eberechi Eze competing to support Harry Kane, England's firepower is not in question.

    Their ability to keep things tight at the back, though, just might be.

    With Harry Maguire sidelined by a calf injury and Luke Shaw not yet ready to feature after recovering from a hamstring issue, Southgate will be forced to field a new-look backline on Sunday. 

    Marc Guehi is expected to partner John Stones, and England need to recapture the solidity they displayed at previous tournaments under Southgate. 

    Across the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and Euro 2020, England conceded just 0.59 goals per game and allowed opponents a paltry 0.72 expected goals (xG) per match – a figure only bettered by France (0.67) among the leading European teams to make each tournament. 

    Should they fall short of those standards in Gelsenkirchen, the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic and Dusan Tadic are well-equipped to punish them.

    Serbia have only managed five clean sheets in 25 competitive outings under Dragan Stojkovic, who took over in 2021.

    However, they have only failed to score on two of those outings, against Norway (0-1 in the Nations League) and Brazil (0-2 at the 2022 World Cup).

    Generally using a 3-5-2 shape and looking to isolate Mitrovic and Vlahovic against their markers, Serbia will pose a real physical test. They scored one third (five of 15) of their goals in Euro 2024 qualifying via headers, the highest percentage of any team to reach Germany.

    The Three Lions must be prepared to withstand an aerial bombardment. 

    Can Alexander-Arnold solve midfield conundrum?

    Aside from Maguire's replacement, the main talking point in the build-up to England's opener has been the identity of Declan Rice's midfield partner.

    Manchester United's Kobbie Mainoo looked to be in pole position at the end of the domestic season, but reports now suggest Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold – who will don the number eight shirt – will start as first-choice.  

    Alexander-Arnold has played a total of 25,078 minutes of competitive football for Liverpool, and only one per cent of those have come in central midfield, so playing the position at a major tournament could represent something of a baptism of fire.

    However, Alexander-Arnold – who is accustomed to inverting into central areas at club level – could prove a useful asset as England look to prise open low blocks.

     

    He ranked eighth among all outfielders for accurate long balls (147) in the Premier League last season and third for switches of play (32). If he can help to get the likes of Foden and Saka isolated against Serbia's wing-backs on Sunday, that could be key to opening the door.

    Meanwhile, England are well aware of the importance of dead balls at major tournaments. They ranked either first or joint-first for goals from set-pieces at the 2018 World Cup (six goals), Euro 2020 (three) and the 2022 World Cup (two).

    Since making his Premier League debut in December 2016, Alexander-Arnold leads all players in the division for set-play assists (20) and ranks joint-third for chances created from such scenarios (184). 

    Maguire may be absent, but if Alexander-Arnold brings his dead-ball prowess to Germany, England will be a force to be reckoned with from corners and free-kicks.  

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic

    Mitrovic, who is Serbia's all-time leading scorer with 58 goals in 91 matches, still looks sharp despite swapping the Premier League for the Saudi Pro League last year.

    The former Fulham man plundered 28 goals in 28 league games for Al-Hilal in 2023-24, with only Cristiano Ronaldo – with 35 strikes in 31 matches – topping him in the scoring charts.

    Under Stojkovic, Mitrovic has 21 goals in 23 competitive appearances for his country, with the majority of his goals coming via headers (52 per cent).

    England – Harry Kane 

    If England are to go all the way, they will need Kane to deliver in his new home country, after he saw a 44-goal debut season with Bayern Munich go unrewarded in terms of silverware.

     

    Kane is also a proven operator on the international stage, scoring 12 goals across the last three major international tournaments – six at the 2018 World Cup, four at Euro 2020 and two at the 2022 World Cup. 

    No European player has bettered that tally, with only France's Kylian Mbappe matching it.

    He also scored or assisted on all seven of his starts in qualifying (eight goals, two assists), including a brace in an impressive 3-1 win over European champions Italy last October.

  • Pickford: England welcome the pressure of being Euro 2024 favourites Pickford: England welcome the pressure of being Euro 2024 favourites

    Jordan Pickford has urged England to embrace the pressure of being one of the favourites to win Euro 2024.

    England made it to the final of Euro 2020, ultimately losing on penalties to Italy, as well as reaching the semi-finals and quarter-finals of the last two World Cups under Gareth Southgate.

    According to the Opta supercomputer, England are the slight favourites going into Euro 2024, with a 19.9 per cent chance of lifting the trophy for the first time, narrowly ahead of France (19.1 per cent).

    Pickford has faith that the squad, despite being quite young, will be able to cope with the expectations placed on them due to the favourites tag.

    "Apart from Russia in 2018 [World Cup], where there was no pressure on us, to be a top, elite team you have got to have pressure," Pickford said. "You have got to deal with it. To be one of the favourites, you have got to enjoy that pressure.

    "I think we've got the right balance [between experience and youth]. With experience, we can help the younger lads who haven't had as many caps, but everyone has different experiences through their own football careers.

    "Some of the lads who are newer have been to major tournaments at younger levels and you have got to go away from home for a while. Everyone has been through those experiences.

    "The senior lads, we have got to help those younger lads if needs be, but they are top players, they don't need much help."

    The goalkeeper has also shrugged off worries that the defensive changes in England's squad will affect their chances at the tournament.

    Harry Maguire, a mainstay in previous tournaments under Southgate, had to withdraw from the preliminary squad due to a calf injury he sustained in April.

    Meanwhile, Luke Shaw will not be fit to start the Euros, and John Stones missed training on Wednesday due to illness, though he returned on Thursday.

    Despite an unsettled look to England's back four, Pickford is confident whoever starts in front of him against Serbia will be prepared for the challenge.

    Pickford said: "It doesn't affect us. [There's] lot of lads I've played with anyway. Anyone who's in the England squad is there for what they have done for their club.

    "It's easy [playing with younger defenders]. They're there because of talent.

    "When they're talented, I can help them, guide them, because I can see the full pitch and just my communication is hopefully a key to help them. That's what I think I'm good at. They know what they're doing in front of me.

    "Everyone is fighting for a spot. Whoever plays, we are always ready and prepared. That's what the manager and the staff do. They get us ready and prepared for whoever it is."

    England's Euro 2024 campaign begins against Serbia on Sunday, with Denmark and Slovenia following in Group C. 

  • Buttler hails England but acknowledges 'we are still in the same position' Buttler hails England but acknowledges 'we are still in the same position'

    Jos Buttler saluted England's performance in their must-win game against Oman, but acknowledged "we are still in the same position" at the T20 World Cup.

    After their opening match against Scotland was rained off, defeat by Australia left the reigning champions requiring victories from their final two Group B outings - and a boosted net run-rate to keep their title defence alive.

    Buttler's side were on a mission against Oman, who they dismissed for just 47 with 101 balls remaining - setting a new World Cup record in the process - before taking just 19 balls to successfully chase down that target.

    England must now beat Namibia in their final group game on Saturday - while hoping Australia beat Scotland the following day - to book their place in the Super 8s.

    "It was a really good performance," Buttler said. "We have had some really good training sessions and spoke about how we need to stay true to ourselves, and trust we have got really good players.

    "We spoke about needing to win two games of cricket and, if we had the chance to affect the net run-rate, that would be important.

    "The tone was set really well by the bowlers, and they managed to pick up those early wickets, restrict them, and knock them off.

    "We told [the batters] then to be ultra-positive. We spoke in the lead-up to this. We have to win games and if we get a chance, we have to take advantage with the net run-rate.

    "We have lots of confidence in our team, and we have another big game to come. We are still in the same position. We still have a must-win game on Saturday."

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