By Duncan Bech, PA England Rugby Correspondent
Marcus Smith has won his duel with George Ford for the role of fly-half understudy to Owen Farrell for England’s biggest test of the Guinness Six Nations yet.
Smith was battling to keep his place on the bench for Saturday’s Twickenham showdown with France but he has been included in a reduced 27-man squad at the expensive of his playmaking rival.
Having started against Scotland in round one and then being limited to brief cameos off the bench for Italy and Wales, he was released to play for Harlequins against Exeter while Ford remained in the England camp.
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A man-of-the-match display against the Chiefs on Saturday underlined his star quality and the 80 minutes have been good enough to get him the nod over Ford, who returns to Sale to accumulate more game time as he finds his way back from an Achilles problem.
“George has been wonderful but we just felt that at this moment in time he’s going to need some more minutes at his club,” defence coach Kevin Sinfield said.
“George hasn’t been long back in the fold. He has been outstanding and we have no doubt that if he was to stay, he’d be great for us. But we think that at this moment in time the best thing for him is to get minutes at Sale.
“I thought Marcus was outstanding against Exeter, but he has trained like that over the last six weeks. We’ve seen first-hand what he’s been capable of and he’s in the mix against France.”
Steve Borthwick names his starting XV on Thursday lunchtime, with Farrell set to continue as starting fly-half and captain.
Courtney Lawes will be missing after the Northampton forward was ruled out of the remaining two rounds of the tournament because of a shoulder injury.
It extends a miserable run of injuries that has seen Lawes’ season also heavily disrupted by concussion, neck, glute and calf problems.
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The 34-year-old only made his England comeback as a final-quarter replacement in the 20-10 victory over Wales in round four but those 12 minutes will be his only game time in this tournament.
“We’re waiting for the results of a scan, but from what we’ve been told he’ll miss the rest of the Six Nations,” Sinfield said.
“It’s tough for him. To have had Courtney available for the Wales game was great and I know he’s gone from injury to injury.
“That can happen as you get a bit older in your career. You shake one off and you get another one. He’s just having a bad run at the minute.
“His influence in camp has been incredible. He’s been great in camp. We’ll miss him at the weekend and hopefully it’s not too long before he’s back in the fold.”
Manu Tuilagi has been included in a 27-man training squad that will continue preparations to face the current Grand Slam champions although he is unavailable as he completes a ban for dangerous play.
Instead, his role in camp has been to act as an opposition player during training and he will come into contention once again for the climax to the tournament against Ireland.
Wing Max Malins has recovered from an ankle injury that troubled him during last week’s Brighton training camp.