England team winners and losers as Steve Borthwick backs Marcus Smith against Japan

Jared Wright
England Rugby stars Marcus Smith and Ben Spencer.

Our winners and losers as Steve Borthwick names his team to tackle Japan.

Following the announcement of England head coach Steve Borthwick’s team to face Eddie Jones’ Japan side on Saturday, here are our winners and losers.

It is the Red Rose’s first game back since the 2024 Six Nations, where they finished third overall.

The match also marks the first clash against former head coach Jones since he was sacked from the role in late 2022 and the first Test between the two teams in Japan.

After the one-off Test against the Brave Blossoms, England head to New Zealand for a two matches against the All Blacks.

Without further ado, here are the winners and losers from Borthwick’s selection.

Winners

Marcus Smith

As is usually the case with the England teams, the discussion about who will start in the number 10 jersey has been rampant, and Borthwick has handed the playmaking keys to Marcus Smith.

The Quins fly-half is the more experienced international with Fin Smith playing just twice off the bench in the Six Nations this season but his Premiership form had many believing that he could make the step up.

Instead, Borthwick has given Marcus the opportunity to lock down the jersey ahead of the All Blacks Tests following the injury to George Ford.

The 25-year-old certainly deserves the chance to make the jersey his own and could well do so during the July internationals. While he has always been superb in club rugby, he has begun to replicate that form in the white jersey for England, even doing so in short cameos off the bench. Now he has the chance to really press his claim.

Marcus Smith wins fly-half race for England’s historic Test against Eddie Jones’ Japan

Bevan Rodd

There was always going to be a change at loosehead prop with Ellis Genge sidelined, and the Sale Sharks number one gets the nod after another solid Premiership season.

It will be just the sixth Test cap for the 23-year-old prop, who shows plenty of promise. He edges the impressive uncapped Harlequin Fin Baxter to a starting role and has the chance to lock down the jersey ahead of the internationals in New Zealand, where his reward will be to front up against one of the finest tighthead props in the game, Tyrel Lomax.

Charlie Ewels

Charlie Ewels returns to earn his 31st England cap after his 30th ended in disaster as he was red-carded just 82 seconds into the Six Nations match against Ireland.

He has been called into training squads since and was in the running for the World Cup squad but missed out, having sustained a long-term injury before then.

This season, however, he was a driving force in Bath’s run to the Premiership final and spearheaded their pack’s dominance throughout their campaign. The second-rower will feature from the bench, and he has well and truly earned his international recall and could prove to be a pivotal part of Borthwick’s pack this July campaign and going forward.

George Furbank

Borthwick is backing his bold call from the Six Nations earlier this year as he continues to persist with George Furbank in the number 15 jersey ahead of Freddie Steward. The latter seemed undroppable to most leading into the Six Nations, but the England boss made the brave decision to make the switch, and it paid dividends.

After a sensational season guiding Saints to their first Premiership title in a decade, Furbank has retained his role in the England starting XV, and rightly so, as he is bound to play a crucial role against the Japanese and New Zealanders.

Harry Randall

Danny Care’s retirement from international rugby has swung the door open for the replacement scrum-half jersey, with Alex Mitchell now clearly Borthwick’s first-choice starter.

This week, Bristol’s livewire number nine Harry Randall is given the opportunity to impress from the bench after a superb run of form at the end of the Premiership season.

He gets the nod ahead of Ben Spencer this time around, and if he reproduces his fine form for the Bears in the England jumper, he could be fronting up against the All Blacks next month.

Tom Roebuck

There is just one uncapped player in Borthwick’s side who will tackle Jones’ Brave Blossoms in Sale Sharks speedster, Tom Roebuck.

Roebuck has been in the England squad for most of the year but now gets his opportunity to finally pull on the jersey and will be eager to notch up his first cap in Tokyo.

The Sale winger ran in 10 tries in 18 appearances in the Premiership – a tally only Ollie Sleightholme bettered – while he racked up 26 clean breaks and beat 33 defenders in a remarkable season.

Tom Curry

His first Test cap since the Rugby World Cup Bronze Final against Argentina as the brilliant back-rower completes his journey back to international rugby.

Tom Curry’s hip injury has been described as a “car crash” and threatened the rest of his playing career. It’s a hell of a testament to his mental drive that he is back playing once again and doing so at the highest level.

Japan

While Japan are now considered a Tier One nation, Borthwick may have been tempted to give many of his fringe players an opportunity to press their claims against the Brave Blossoms with the series against the All Blacks looming. Instead, he has gone full guns blazing with all four changes to the side from the side that fell to France in the Six Nations being enforced.

Far too often, the traditional powerhouse nations organise such fixtures and select a largely second-string side, but Borthwick’s selections mean that Jones will get a fantastic yardstick as to where his side is in comparison to a Six Nations side.

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Losers

Fin Smith

If Marcus is a winner, then Fin has to be the loser, but that will solely depend on how many minutes the Saints superstar gets from the bench on Saturday.

The talented fly-half has been in stellar form and was particularly brilliant in Northampton’s semi-final victory over Saracens in the Premiership.

England are well placed in the fly-half department considering the fact that they have are without experienced playmakers Ford and Owen Farrell and can still select two impressive rising stars.

Ollie Sleightholme

The Saints flyer has finally been included in the England squad, but Saturday provided possibly his best opportunity to make a splash on the international season after his hot run in the Premiership.

However, it was not to be as even with Elliot Daly’s unavailability, England have great depth in the position, and his clubmate Tommy Freeman is preferred along with Exeter’s brilliant Immanuel Feyi-Waboso.

His chance will come, perhaps not against the All Blacks, but surely this year.

Fin Baxter

Many England fans and pundits backed Quins’ breakout star loosehead prop to debut against Japan and take on the starting role against the All Blacks in July. The first is not to be, but he may well get a crack at the second after truly impressive shifts, particularly in the Investec Champions Cup against the mighty French packs.

At 22, he has plenty of time to rack up the Test caps and he will still be pleased that he is in the squad.

Ethan Roots

After a Man of the Match performance in his first international earlier this year, Ethan Roots looks to have slipped down the pecking order in the highly competitive Red Rose back-row.

Unfortunately for him, Chandler Cunningham-South gets his first first start after an immense season for Harlequins and is well-suited to fill that blindside flanker void that Courtney Lawes has left. Curry’s return to fitness has not helped his chances either.

Still, Roots will be eager to get an opportunity in July against the country of his birth.

Ben Spencer

Perhaps Borthwick is looking for a faster finish to the clash against Japan, backing the more lively Randall, but Spencer was sensational for Bath all season and saved arguably his best performance for the final against Mitchell.

 

His accurate box kicks and sharp decision-making mean he is likely to be in the mix again for the All Blacks, but based on his club form, he was deserving of a place in the first matchday 23, particularly with Borthwick clearly backing form players against Japan.

Freddie Steward

It is looking increasingly more difficult for Steward to force his way back into the England matchday 23 with coaching staff asking more from their full-backs on attack.

Steward is one of the best players in the world under the high ball, and his imposing frame is a massive asset, but right now, the England attack requires more from him in a playmaking capacity.

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