By Mitch Phillips
LONDON – In a few short months Marcus Smith has been catapulted from young, uncapped Harlequins flyhalf to seemingly being the keystone to a much-needed sea-change in England’s entire attacking mentality two years out from the next World Cup.
Smith, 22, had one of the most remarkable summers any rugby player can ever have experienced as he first inspired Harlequins to their incredible semi-final comeback against Bristol and then to the Premiership title win over Exeter nL2N2O80AY.
A week later he made his full England debut against the United States and as he left the pitch after his second game against Canada a week on, he discovered that he had been called up as an injury replacement for the British & Irish Lions.
He managed all that while maintaining his electric, exciting attacking approach and also nailing goal-kicks with relentless accuracy, dispelling any lingering doubts his young shoulders were not ready for the pressure of the game’s biggest stages.
England coach Eddie Jones, who first called up an 18-year-old Smith as an “apprentice” after he played three Premiership games, finally seems to have been won over as he is set to give him a run at flyhalf in the autumn internationals against Tonga, Australia and South Africa, having dropped George Ford.
Smith will need to shake off a niggle to feature against Tonga at Twickenham on Saturday, one of a host of backline injury issues, but even if he does not make the cut Jones said he would get his chance against Australia the following weekend.
“We are keen to give Marcus and Owen (Farrell) a chance to play at 10 and 12 to see where they can go and take our game,” Jones said last weekend in a rare ‘reveal’ ahead of his likely team selection. “We need to improve our ability to attack more aggressively.”
This will be music to the ears of England fans who have had to suffer some stultifying performances since the extraordinary high of the demolition of New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semi-final.
They did win the 2020 Six Nations, albeit with little rugby to write home about, but were desperately short of attacking ideas in this year’s Championship as they slumped to a worst-ever fifth-placed finish.
Jones routinely dismissed any criticism of his ever-more strangled approach, saying it was a consequence of refereeing focus, particularly at the breakdown, that penalised attacking teams and meant running the ball became too much of a risk.
He has now accepted that the conservatism that contributed to Ford becoming a shadow of the adventurous force of his younger days went too far and left England short of scoring options and easier to predict and contain.
Having decided change was needed, the Australian has gone all out by ditching a group of vastly experienced players and drafting in a swathe of fresh faces, saying that he was now selecting with an eye on the World Cup in France in 2023.
He has stuck with 30-year-old Farrell, despite the Saracens man’s own relative dip in form, saying he will remain captain but, crucially, no longer seeing him as his flyhalf.
Beyond that there are opportunities galore for the new faces, particularly in Saturday’s opener against a Tonga side who are likely to be swept aside by more than 50 points.
Razor-fast winger Adam Radwan could become an instant Twickenham favourite, while Alex Dombrandt is set for his chance to stake a claim to inherit Billy Vunipola’s Number Eight shirt, with Callum Chick and Sam Simmonds also involved in an intriguing three-way tussle.
Ben Youngs, with 109 caps to his name, remains in the squad but Jones’s go-to scrumhalf will face a stiff fight to hold off the young brigade all the way to France, though with Raffi Quirke and Harry Randall injured this week, uncapped Alex Smith is set for a place on the bench.
Australia and world champions South Africa will provide stiffer tests on Nov. 13 and 20 and though Jones would never admit to being prepared to lose in the cause of development, he knows that if England are going to tear up the kick-based template of the last two years, it comes with risk.
England’s long-suffering fans, through gritted teeth, would probably say it is a risk that absolutely needs to be taken.