Marcus Smith in contention to face Ireland after recovering from injury

Marcus Smith during England training
Heading into the Six Nations Marcus Smith (pictured) and Alex Mitchell was Steve Borthwick's preferred half-back partnership - Adam Davy/PA

Marcus Smith is poised to return to England’s training squad and be in contention to face Ireland following his calf injury.

Scrum-half Alex Mitchell is also ahead of schedule on his own comeback after fears that both half-backs would miss the remainder of the Six Nations. Fly-half Smith suffered a calf injury in a pre-tournament training camp in Girona while Mitchell twisted his knee at an open training session at Twickenham on Feb 16.

With England’s squad reassembling in York on Wednesday, head coach Steve Borthwick is optimistic that both players will be available for the back end of the Championship. England host Ireland at Twickenham on March 9 followed by a final round match against France in Lyon a week later.

“I’m very hopeful that Marcus will be available for selection, for this latter part of the tournament,” Borthwick said. “We’ve had positive news on Alex Mitchell’s injury too, so hopefully he will feature in the latter part of the tournament too. Whether that’s the next game or the last one, I’m not sure. He’ll come in on Wednesday and continue his rehab. We’ll have a good look of where he is.”

Alex Mitchell releases a pass during England training
Alex Mitchell is ahead of schedule after twisting his knee during open training session at Twickenham on Feb 16 - Dan Mullan/Getty Images

It is understood that Mitchell and Smith was Borthwick’s preferred half-back partnership heading into the Championship. Following the dispiriting 30-21 defeat to Scotland on Saturday, Borthwick must now judge whether to revert to his original Plan A, if Mitchell comes through fitness tests, or stick with the 193-cap half-back pairing of Danny Care and George Ford, who were both underwhelming at Murrayfield.

“There is a balance through this period of giving the players the time to develop and the time to understand the relationships that are required and also for us to develop as a team,” Borthwick said. “Whilst also ensuring we make the changes that are required and dealing  with injuries and bumps and bruises.”

Yet further changes risk further undermining the cohesion that Borthwick claims that he is trying to build. Against Scotland, he started with a brand new midfield combination versus Scotland’s settled trio of Finn Russell, Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones.

Back row Ben Earl pleaded for patience with supporters in spite of what he described as another “harrowing” loss. “I think if you look at combinations and cohesiveness and you compare that to the Scottish team, how many times has that 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 played together,” Earl said. “I should think a fair amount. How many times have ours? I’m not looking for excuses but it’ll come over time and we’ve probably got to go through some pain to come out the other side.

“It feels a little bit like the World Cup warm-ups in the sense that we know we’re going to somewhere successful, we are going to be successful, that’s not in any doubt but we’ve got to stay with it, learn from these harrowing losses in the sense that it’s another game we could have won.”

‘We love the way we’re playing’

Many England supporters will fear another harrowing loss when the grand-slam chasing Irish come to Twickenham as 1-7 favourites. Yet Earl says that there is no suggestion that they will look to go into their shells and abandon their more expansive recent gameplan. “The coaches won’t let us do that and we don’t want to do that,” Earl said.

“We love the way we’re playing, I really enjoyed that game for the most part, the scoreline aside I thought it was a brilliant Test match, coming down to such fine margins. It just shows, 15 men v 15 men, it only takes one or two players to have a moment off or one skill error and the whole game flips on its head. It just shows the fine margins of Test match rugby and I thought it was a brilliant game.

“We’ve got no choice, it has to be the best thing [playing Ireland]. We can’t change the game. We’ve got two weeks trying to work out how we beat them. They’re probably one of the top two, three teams in the world but I have full confidence that our leaders in the squad and the coaches will come up with a solution on how to beat them. I thought last year’s Six Nations, although I wasn’t involved, for 50-60 minutes we were well in that game. Again it’s, can we step forward as a team? Can we keep getting better as a group?”

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