Finn Russell surprised England picked Furbank – but there's good reason they have

George Furbank in training at Murrayfield
Furbank will be expected to ignite England's attack - Getty Images/David Rogers

Finn Russell has admitted his surprise at England’s selection of George Furbank over Freddie Steward at full-back.

Gregor Townsend’s team, who are bidding for a fourth consecutive victory over the auld enemy and a fifth in the past seven meetings, have reviewed their loss to South Africa last September at the World Cup in preparation to face England’s blitz defence.

Russell suggested that Furbank’s inclusion, as part of a revamped starting backline that also features Danny Care and Ollie Lawrence, will signal a different approach from England.

“I really expected Steward to play,” said the fly-half. “I expected them to go with the blitz defence and go hard at the aerial battle, which would be similar to South Africa.

“I think picking Furbank means they might play a bit more; whether that’s due to having Care at No 9 and having Lawrence back as well [I don’t know]. Their style of play might be a bit different so we’ll have to be ready for everything.

“Furbank is a brilliant player I’ve chatted to Rory Hutchinson about him and he talks him up, being his team-mate [at Northampton Saints], so it’s a slightly different team to what we expected but we’ve got to be ready for anything, whether it’s that kicking game with the hard blitz defence or they’re looking to play a little bit. It’s meant to be dry so if both teams are looking to run it that should help a bit.”

A blitz system, according to Russell, represents a defensive team putting “all their eggs in one basket”. Scotland have discussed England’s approach, but their co-captain has urged them to show conviction.

“You almost don’t realise that you’re talking about their blitz defence as much, and it was only today that I thought: ‘All we’ve spoken about is their blitz defence and how we need to change our attack to take on their blitz defence’.

“A message I was getting across to the boys today was just be decisive: when you’re carrying, carry, and when you’re passing, pass obviously. Don’t get caught in two minds between carrying and passing it - that’s when you’ll get caught on the back foot and the defence will get on top of us.

“So whether it’s us being really direct or taking them on wide, we need to make that decision early and just go through with it 100 per cent. That’s probably a learning from the South Africa game, that when you’re under a bit of pressure you start overthinking things, you get caught in two minds, and that’s when the defence - especially a blitz defence - gets on top of you.”

Experience in the blitz makes Furbank a tough proposition

In a way, aggressive blitz defences are led by full-backs. Willie le Roux might not be regarded as an imposing tackler, but he has been integral to South Africa’s system over the years.

This is because wings move very narrow as part of a blitz, pressing quickly from out to in. They will often finish up towards the middle of the field as they read passing movements and aim to complete man-and-ball tackles. At the second New Zealand line-out of the World Cup final, with a minute on the clock, Kurt-Lee Arendse shot up and toe-poked a loose ball that was closer to the left touchline than his own right wing:

That licence regularly leaves space past a wing’s outside shoulder, on the edge of the defensive line, which must be filled. Le Roux, and later Damian Willemse, have needed to swing around rapidly in a high-octane pendulum motion to cover for Arendse, Cheslin Kolbe and the rest of South Africa’s nimble wings.

George Furbank’s promotion over Freddie Steward, who was fit and available, gives England another playmaker in the back line to offset the introduction of a more direct midfield carrier in Ollie Lawrence. Furbank, who has started a Test match at fly-half, lest we forget, is a more assured passer than Steward. Having prioritised strength training over the summer and bulked up by a couple of kilograms, he has looked flinty on the counter for Northampton Saints.

And yet, Steve Borthwick and Felix Jones may also feel as though Furbank will be better suited to Scotland’s pursuit of width in attack. England are bound to be teased by cross-field kick-passes towards Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn. It is almost certain that Finn Russell will outflank them at some stage. Both Italy and Wales have done so during the first two rounds.

In the aftermath of England’s skinny win in Rome, Steward explained what Jones was asking of full-backs. “In the new system, I’m having to be involved a lot more in terms of presence in the front line and closing [space],” he said. “It’s slightly more aggressive than previous systems, perhaps, but I love it. It’s exciting. Instead of being parked at the back, you’re able to get on the end of the line and make some reads.”

Steward’s anticipation seems to be improving all the time, but Furbank is probably more agile and quicker over the ground; and therefore likely to be more effective at ‘shutting the gate’ beyond his wings. One-on-one tackling is another area that the 27-year-old, who started England’s last win at Murrayfield in 2020, targeted in the close season. Back in November, Furbank clattered André Esterhuizen a couple of times during Northampton’s steely defeat of Harlequins.

England's George Furbank during a training session at Honda England Rugby Performance Centre, London
Furbank, pictured here in 2022, spent last summer adding bulk to his frame - PA Wire/Adam Davy

Borthwick is willingly weakening England’s solidity under contestable high balls. Steward is among the best on the planet when it comes to aerial duels, perhaps second only to Hugo Keenan. And this is a risk because Scotland have sprung to life off the back of regathered kicks. Ben White finished a flowing move against France that was instigated by his own box-kick.

On the other hand, though, Scotland have tended to go long with the boot so far this Six Nations. They kicked for 1,248m against Wales and a whopping 1,574m against France. When Furbank last started for England at full-back, in Paris two years ago as Steward shifted to the wing, Eddie Jones remarked on how France prioritised distance in the territorial exchanges. Borthwick may have something similar on his mind.

Above all, this selection provides further evidence that Borthwick can be bold if there is enough logic to persuade him. And it does not spell the end of Steward’s career at all. He was also overlooked for the World Cup quarter-final win over Fiji before returning the following week against South Africa.

Borthwick weighs up the form and picks his runners. Furbank has been backed to beat Scotland with good reason.

Richard Wigglesworth knows better than most about Borthwick’s left-field selections. Now the England attack coach, he was whisked into the Leicester Tigers line-up for the Premiership final in 2022 and promptly vindicated the decision with an assured performance that rattled Saracens.

“I think Steve has always picked tactically,” Wigglesworth said on Friday afternoon, when asked about Furbank’s promotion. “He’s probably not had as much credit as he deserves for being brave with some selections. If you go through the history of his coaching from Leicester to now, you’d pick up some pretty bold selections. I was one of them once, so I know he’s capable of making difficult choices, not just the easy choice.”

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