Owen Farrell is only getting better as he enters his 30s and deserves to lead the England team into the 2023 Rugby World Cup, according to his predecessor, Dylan Hartley. However, Hartley believes the autumn internationals offer the perfect time to switch Farrell to inside centre so that the brilliant young fly-half Marcus Smith can have an extended run at No 10.
Hartley knows all too well that Eddie Jones culled a number of senior players, including himself, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw, as the last Rugby World Cup started to loom into view. Yet he believes that Farrell still has plenty to offer, despite the emergence of the 22-year-old Smith.
“Everyone has a life-span, but Owen is not at the end of his life-span,” said Hartley, who played 97 Tests for England over 16 years and will be a pundit on Amazon Prime Video’s coverage of the autumn internationals.
“He’s only getting better, and is pretty well driven. Shiny things don’t motivate him, success does. He adds so much on the field, first and foremost, and so much off it.”
“ He is your consummate professional, in terms of how diligent he is, his training, his preparation.
“When you’ve got that in your environment with your captain it’s only rubbing off everywhere. Do I see him being replaced before the 2023 World Cup? No.”
Still Hartley believes that Smith, who led Harlequins to their first Premiership title in nine years before earning debuts for England and the British & Irish Lions, deserves to start against Tonga next month.
“I’m not saying put all the young kids in, but it’s a really bold statement of what this England team’s about if Marcus gets a shot,” he said.
“It’s not fanfare, it’s warranted. He does all the silky, flash stuff that captures the Instagram reels and YouTube highlights, but his basics are really strong as well. He’s not scared. He’s physical. And he makes his tackles. There are lots of fly-halves who throw the ball about, and have that flair, but shy away from physicality. But he’s none of that.
“He’s still a young kid but the sooner we do that, the better it is for 2023,” said Hartley. “Eddie obviously needs to think: ‘Who’s my fly-half for that World Cup final in France?’ and build back.
“It would be a show of confidence and a show to everyone how they want to take this team forward. I’d love to see it. I say give him the keys to grandpa’s car, let him take a spin and be surprised if the car comes back.”
Smith impressed for England in July as they beat the United States 43-29 and Canada 70-14 before being selected as a replacement for the Lions tour in South Africa.
While he did not play in any Tests, the Lions’ coach Warren Gatland claimed afterwards that the 22-year-old was “going to be a superstar in the game”.
Hartley agrees, but he believes England can find a way to accommodate Smith and Farrell at 10 and 12, with Manu Tuilagi at 13. “The culture of the England team and the mindset over the last 18 months, has been more structured rugby: set-piece, kick, defend then take the opportunities when they’re presented – like Jonny May’s wonder try against Ireland,” he said. “But I think it would benefit from a more attacking mindset.”
“I don’t think we should doom and scaremonger around Owen’s position – he’s played 10 and 12 in that team. Just because Marcus is playing so well doesn’t mean Owen is gone. Owen does the basics really well, and the credit he has in the bank with Eddie – who ultimately picks the team – just as I had credit, and his work isn’t unseen. Just because Marcus is playing so well doesn’t mean Owen is gone. I’d like to see him play with Marcus.”