England are waiting on the fitness of Marcus Smith before finalising plans for the World Cup semi-final against South Africa on Saturday, with Freddie Steward waiting in the wings. Smith was unable to take a full part in training on Tuesday with England awaiting the latest medical bulletin and keeping the Springboks guessing over their selection at full-back.
The England defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, lauded Smith after only his second start in the No 15 jersey against Fiji but admitted he was on a modified training programme on Tuesday. Sinfield also pointed to how Steve Borthwick has not named an unchanged team throughout the tournament – in fact he has never done so as England head coach – and was full of praise for Steward, who is hoping for a recall.
Jonny May, Tom Curry and Manu Tuilagi were also restricted to modified training but Borthwick’s biggest selection call – though he could find room for both – is expected to be whether he sticks by Smith at full‑back against the Springboks or recalls Steward, who at 6ft 2in offers more aerial protection.
On Tuesday night the Springboks director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, confidently predicted England’s starting lineup from one to 14 but was less certain which way Borthwick will go at full-back. Sinfield kept his cards close to his chest with a decision to be made once England have a more accurate picture of Smith’s fitness.
“(Marcus is) one of those who have been modified so we’ll get a clearer read in the week but fingers crossed he will be good to go,” Sinfield said. “It is fair to say as well our team has changed every game throughout the World Cup and Steve is very specific in when he selects the team, he does it in the knowledge he thinks it will give us the best chance of winning that game. Just because Fred wasn’t selected last week doesn’t mean he does anything wrong, he has actually done a lot of great things and a lot of things right but Steve and the coaching team thought it was the right thing to go with Marcus.”
Smith was in the wars against Fiji, sustaining a fat lip in the tackle which led to Vinaya Habosi being shown a yellow card and the Harlequins player finished the match with a bandaged head. Sinfield said: “I think we’d all agree he’s a world‑class 10 but last week I felt he was a world-class 15 as well.
“You’ve got to remember this guy has played (230) minutes as a full-back in Test rugby so far. What he’s done on the training field has been outstanding. You’re blown away by what he does and he’s been given more time and space now.
“If there was any doubt how brave and courageous he is I think you saw it with your own eyes. The bloke got his face smashed and threw his body into tackles. The guys are in full admiration for how he’s gone about it. He’s just got his face smashed all over the place yet he wants the ball.
“He’s just a brave guy. And not just because he’s physically tough, brave because to be put in like that, and I know he wanted to go for it, but to be put on a world stage in a quarter-final and deliver what he delivered was an absolute credit to him.”
Steward, meanwhile, was left out of the 23 against Fiji, having started 29 of England’s previous 30 Tests since making his debut in the summer of 2021. The only match he had missed was against Chile in the pool stages and his omission was a shock.
Sinfield, who is well known to Steward from his time at Leicester, said: “This is where our influence, our help, our support, our guidance sits with the guys who don’t play. How can we make them get better, how can we make them feel a part of it.
“I’ve worked with Fred for some time now. Thankfully I’ve not had to have many of these conversations where I’m trying to pick him up, clearly he’s disappointed as anyone would be, missing out on a quarter‑final but he’s responded as we’d expect him to.”