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England vs Italy Six Nations: Marcus Smith dropped, Owen Farrell moves to fly-half, Jack Willis recalled to start

England host Italy in Round 2 of Six Nations on Sunday (3pm); Marcus Smith is dropped from side, with Owen Farrell moving to fly-half; centres Henry Slade, Ollie Lawrence come in to start; Jack Willis replaces Ben Curry at openside; Tom Curry (hamstring), Courtney Lawes (calf) still out

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England head coach Steve Borthwick hails Italy's progress ahead of Sunday's Six Nations clash between the two sides

Marcus Smith has been dropped to the bench by England head coach Steve Borthwick for Sunday's Six Nations clash vs Italy, with skipper Owen Farrell moving to fly-half as one of three changes.

To facilitate Farrell's shift from inside centre to No 10, Exeter Chiefs centre Henry Slade is brought into midfield after his recovery from a hip injury, as is Bath's Ollie Lawrence, with Joe Marchant dropped to the bench.

Asked about his decision to omit Smith, Borthwick said: "My policy always has been - and I've been very clear about this - that I pick a team for the game we are playing.

"I've been very clear that every game matters for England. I'm not looking to games beyond or aspects beyond in months to come - I focus upon this week and that's what I'm doing with this team.

"I feel blessed that we've got some fantastic fly-halves in this country, which is brilliant for the competition for places."

Among the forwards, Jack Willis is named to start in place of Ben Curry at openside flanker - the latter cut from the England squad earlier in the week, along with Ben Youngs and Anthony Watson.

Willis faces Italy at Twickenham two years on from suffering a serious knee injury in the same fixture, which kept him out of the game for 53 weeks.

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England's Jack Willis during the training session at Twickenham, London.
Image: England's Jack Willis has been recalled to start at openside flanker

Elsewhere, England are still without key forwards Tom Curry (hamstring) and Courtney Lawes (calf) due to injury.

The back-three remains the same with Freddie Steward at full-back, and Max Malins and Ollie Hassell-Collins named on the wings.

Scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet partners Farrell at half-back, but there is a change among the replacements with Alex Mitchell the scrum-half named ahead of Youngs.

The forward pack is unchanged aside from the introduction of Willis, with a front row of Ellis Genge, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler, and a second row of Ollie Chessum and Maro Itoje.

England v Scotland - Guinness Six Nations - Twickenham Stadium
England's Owen Farrell appears dejected after the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday February 4, 2023.
Image: England skipper Owen Farrell has made the positional switch from centre to fly-half

The back-row unit alongside Willis sees Lewis Ludlam at blindside flanker and Alex Dombrandt at No 8.

There is one further change to the squad, as fit-again London Irish back Henry Arundell comes in to wear the No 23.

Borthwick: Slade return key to fly-half decision

Borthwick explained that his decision to play Farrell at fly-half was significantly impacted by the "dynamic" that Slade's return brings.

"In terms of the dynamic, having Henry available this week is very important," said Borthwick, who served as Eddie Jones' number two from 2016 to 2019.

"When I was an assistant coach with England, Henry played in some very important games for us and he brought some strengths in some really important games.

Henry Slade (PA Images)
Image: Henry Slade has come into the side at outside-centre after recovering from a hip injury

"Coming back, I can't tell you how impressed I have been with him. He's a seasoned campaigner, at both international level and club level and has an outstanding skillset."

Smith's omission means Farrell, the Gallagher Premiership's form fly-half, makes his first start for England in his preferred position since the 2021 Six Nations.

"Owen's ability to manage a game and dictate the game and where and how it should be played is very, very good," Borthwick said.

"He's also a very good defender in that channel and in the last couple of years at Saracens his ball movement has really developed.

"What we have with the combination of Owen, Ollie and Henry is right and left-footed kickers, carrying ability and distribution. There's a great blend of strengths there."

Few selection decisions have created as much debate as Smith's creative partnership with Farrell, which has fired only fleetingly, yet was seen by Borthwick's predecessor Jones as worth ongoing investment.

Ollie Lawrence will start at inside centre for England against Scotland
Image: Ollie Lawrence starts at inside-centre, after beginning from the replacements bench last week

The dominant view has been that only one should be chosen at fly-half with the other supporting from the bench, but Borthwick has tuned out the noise by relying purely on the advice of his assistants Kevin Sinfield and Nick Evans.

"I listen to people that are really close to me. In Kevin Sinfield and Nick Evans I've got two people who know a fair bit about how to play in playmaking positions and understand the game," Borthwick said.

"In the autumn I've watched the players closely and in the last couple of weeks I've had the opportunity to watch them very closely.

"I've got Henry Slade available and that gives you a different option. I listen to the people who give me clear insight."

England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Jack van Poortvliet; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Ollie Chessum, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 8 Alex Dombrandt

Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Henry Arundell.

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