Freddie Steward is expected to be recalled to full-back for England’s World Cup semi-final against South Africa on Saturday, amid concerns over Marcus Smith’s fitness.
Steward was ruled out of England’s Matchday 23 match against Fiji last time out but is expected to be given the No.15 jersey with Smith unable to fully train this week.
Steward’s return would give Steve Borthwick a safe pair of hands in the face of what is expected to be an aerial bombardment from the Springboks. At 6ft 2in he has considerable prowess under the high ball and, before being omitted against Fiji, he had started 29 of England’s last 30 Tests.
Steward doesn’t offer the same threat as Smith with ball in hand, but the Harlequins playmaker was in the war against Fiji and, barring a late change of heart, it appears his inability to fully participate in training has tips the scales in Steward’s favor. .
Defense coach Kevin Sinfield was full of praise for how Smith handled the physical challenge last Saturday, but admitted he “got his face smashed all over the place.”
Smith left for an assessment of his head injury after a clash with Fiji’s Vinaya Habosi – who received a yellow card for the tackle – and finished the match with a bandaged head. He passed his HIA but was placed on “modified training” on Tuesday and did not participate in a football session.
Sinfield also praised the way Steward handled his quarter-final omission. “I’ve been working with Fred for a while now,” the defense coach said this week.
“Luckily I didn’t have to have a lot of those conversations where I was trying to reach him. He is clearly disappointed, because anyone would have missed out on a quarter-final, but he responded as expected.
“Just because Fred didn’t get selected last week doesn’t mean he’s doing anything wrong. He’s done a lot of good things and a lot of good things, but Steve and the coaching staff have thought it was the right thing to do. Marc.
Although a change of full-back would continue Borthwick’s record of never naming the same team in succession since taking charge of England, the head coach is largely expected to stick with the team that beat Fiji 30-24 in Marseille last weekend when he announced his line-up to face the Springboks on Thursday.
Ollie Chessum, meanwhile, believes England will be a “scary” prospect for the reigning world champions, who go into the match in Paris on Saturday as heavy favourites.
England are the only undefeated team remaining in the competition, having won all five of their matches following a disappointing warm-up campaign, but they face the team that triumphed 32-12 against them in the 2019 final.
“We’re getting better week by week as a group,” Chessum said. “During the preparation matches at the beginning, we were in a strange situation. But we begin to understand ourselves and find our identity. We know what we bring to the table as a team. We’re growing as a team and I think that’s a scary thing for any team. We are not yet the full article and we are winning games.
“I don’t know if fear is the right word, but I think there’s a realization that we know what’s coming. There is an awareness of their capabilities, of the threats they represent. They play against top teams, against top players who will target them week in and week out, and they are still able to do what they do. It’s our job to stop this.
“We must take up the challenge. We play rugby, it’s a physical game. If you don’t bring physicality against a team, you’re going to struggle. From this point of view, as a striker it is not particularly difficult to prepare for a physical match against South Africa. It’s our job this weekend to be physical.