England may be looking at 2023 World Cup but Scotland are best focusing on right here, right now

Owen Farrell's future as England captain is up for debate.Owen Farrell's future as England captain is up for debate.
Owen Farrell's future as England captain is up for debate.
How do you build a team? How far should you look ahead? These questions are pertinent now, coaches – and journalists – being aware that we are now two years from the next Rugby World Cup to be played in France. Word from south of the Border is that Eddie Jones is now about to frame his side, making changes, introducing new players, with this in mind.

Will this, for instance, mean a change of captain? Owen Farrell has been in office since Jones decided that Dylan Hartley’s time was up. Results have been missed, the last Six Nations seeing England lose to Scotland, Wales and Ireland for the first time in almost 50 years. Admittedly, this spring’s tournament was played in strange circumstances, but the criticism regularly levelled at Farrell is that he has been sow, even unable, to respond to the way a match was developing. This has seemed fair criticism, even if one wonders to what extent Farrell has been shackled by his Commanding Officer. Be that as it may, there are plenty of English supporters who think the time has come for Farrell to give way to Maro Itoje.

Farrell has been sure of his place, ever indeed since he was first capped while still a teenager. But if he has been sure of his place, his best position has never been settled. Is he a 10 or a 12? He has had good and bad matches in both positions.

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Now the flavour of the moment is the young Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith, who has shot up the popularity table on the strength of some dazzling performances in the English Premiership at the tail-end of last season, and a fine game for the Lions against a very weak provincial side. Whether he can reproduce this form in an international can only be speculation. Then there is the question whether he can run a game as intelligently as George Ford at his best does.

As for Farrell, it’s possible that he is one of these players who mature early and wither more quickly than others. Players do develop at different ages. Few – perhaps nobody – would have thought Chris Harris a future international – let alone a Lion – when he was 24 or 25. Now, aged 30, he is fully established, and over the last three years he has steadily improved.

Farrell today reminds me somewhat of Craig Chalmers, like him first capped when he was very young, a few months after his 20th birthday. For five years, between 1988 to 1993, there was probably no argument about his selection for Scotland. Like Farrell he was safe and kicked astutely, made breaks though never really quick. But he was past his best when not much more than 25. He played his last Test in 1999 when he was only 31.

I am not persuaded of the wisdom of preparing for the future with the next World Cup in mind. The best teams set themselves to win now, and win consistently, not at some point in the future. I’ve no doubt that the All Blacks are doubly determined to win the trophy in Paris, all the more so because they were well beaten by England in the semi-finals in Japan, but I’m equally sure that they will prepare best by winning every match they play, making only modest changes in their line-up.

As for us in Scotland, we know that the odds are very heavily against us ever winning the World Cup, but, if we are ever to come close to doing so, it will be with a team that has finished top or second in the Six Nations. Experiments are best made within a settled squad. Fortunately we now have a squad of perhaps 30 players who have acquired a good deal of experience, but a squad with very few members who will be more than 32 when the tournament is held in France. So Gregor Townsend can select his team conservatively. Of course, any youngsters who burst into flower will be welcome, but, given the squad we have now, there is more need for consistency in selection of the match-day team than there is for experiment.

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