Eddie Jones wants Marcus Smith to prove that he can thrive as an international ‘bus driver’ — by handling the hype surrounding his emergence as England’s new No 10 sensation.
On Sunday, the national coach named Harlequins’ playmaker prodigy in his 34-man squad for the autumn Test series at Twickenham. As exclusively forecast by Sportsmail yesterday, George Ford and Billy Vunipola missed the cut, along with several other big-name casualties such as Jamie George and Mako Vunipola.
Smith’s rapid progress over the last six months has generated a surge of excitement. He is being regarded as a beacon of English hope, on the strength of his creative flair and the scintillating form which propelled Quins to a Premiership title, earned him a Test debut in the summer and saw him go on to win a Lions call-up.
Harlequins’ playmaker prodigy Marcus Smith has been named in Eddie Jones’s 34-man squad
At 22 he is still developing, but already has to cope with a burden of expectation. He is poised to start at fly-half against Tonga, Australia and South Africa.
Asked if the rookie will be fazed by the fanfare, Jones said: ‘That’s always the big test for players; how they handle either the criticism or the adulation and keep perspective.
‘The best players in the world will keep perspective, because they’re never as good as people say they are and never as bad as people say they are. There’s always that trademark game where they’re always showing up, they’re always giving their best.
Sportsmail correctly forecasted George Ford (left) and Billy Vunipola (right) would miss the cut
‘Sometimes they have a brilliant game. Very rarely they have a poor game. That’s the test of a young player coming through. We wouldn’t have selected Marcus if we didn’t think he could handle that. We think he can.
‘But we’ll have to make sure as a coaching staff we guide him and give him advice when it’s needed. I’m sure he’s got his own advice committee outside the team that’s going to be important for him.’
England Squad for Autumn tests
The Squad of 34 for the Tests against Tonga (Nov 6), Australia (13) and South Africa (20).
FORWARDS: J Blamire, C Chick (both Newcastle), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), T Curry (Sale), T Davison (Newcastle), N Dolly (Leicester), A Dombrandt (Quins), C Ewels (Bath), E Genge (Leicester), J Hill (Exeter), M Itoje (Saracens) C Lawes, L Ludlam (both Northampton), J Marler (Quins), G Martin (Leicester), S Simmonds (Exeter), K Sinckler (Bristol), W Stuart, S Underhill (both Bath).
BACKS: M Atkinson (Gloucester), O Farrell (Saracens), T Freeman, G Furbank (both Northampton), M Malins (Saracens), J May (Gloucester), R Quirke (Sale), A Radwan (Newcastle), H Randall (Bristol), H Slade (Exeter), M Smith (Quins), F Steward (Leicester), M Tuilagi (Sale), A Watson (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester).
After Sportsmail revealed that Smith is in line to wear the No 10 shirt next month, Jones was asked if he can inspire England’s attacking play.
His response for now was understandably non-committal, as he said: ‘First of all, he’s got to get in the side. He’s one of 34 players (trying) to get in the 23. If he does that, there’s an opportunity for him to add his flavour and strengths to the team.
‘The role of the 10 is to be the bus driver and conductor. He’s got to create a route for the team, a place for the team to go and get them to play to that beat. It’s a combination of being a team player and an individual player. Every 10 I’ve coached is different.’
Jones declared unequivocally that Owen Farrell remains the right man to lead England. The captain is set to operate at inside centre next month, though Manu Tuilagi and Gloucester’s uncapped Mark Atkinson also come into that equation. ‘We’ve got three there — all different options,’ said Jones.
‘Owen can be a strong running player but has a strong kicking and good passing game. Atkinson takes the ball to the line, plays through the line a bit more, whereas Manu is more of a gainliner. We’ll have to work out who the best option is for each game.’
The announcement arguably generated more reaction over those left out than those included. Ford, the Vunipolas and George are significant omissions.
There was widespread shock at news of their non-selection after all four performed superbly at the weekend. Jones has told them the door remains open. His concern is about hunger levels, on another long climb towards a distant peak.
‘At the moment, I feel they need to regenerate and rejuvenate,’ he said of the veterans. ‘They need to add things to their game if they’re going to continue to the next World Cup. If they come back with the right desire, the opportunities are going to be there for them.
Saracens’ Jamie George (centre) was another big-name omission from Jones’s squad
‘It is difficult leaving out senior players. They’ve been great players, they’ve been loyal and done well. But the job of the head coach is to make the judgment that we need to move on to a World Cup selection process now.
‘We have a number of players who have been through two World Cup campaigns. With the third, I’ve seen it previously and my experience tells me that some want to go to the World Cup, but they don’t really have the will to prepare to win the World Cup. One of the things I’m looking at is whether they’ve got the will to prepare to win.’
Jones was adamant he would continue to monitor the form of the discarded foursome, adding: ‘I was really pleased with how they played (last weekend) and I hope I see more from them. That will give us more headaches in future.’
England’s four to watch
Age: 24 Position: No 8
Marcus Smith’s foil at Harlequins with deft hands, a great eye for an attacking line and quick feet for a big man.
Sam Simmonds is another electric option, but Jones could opt for Tom Curry at 8.
Eddie’s verdict: ‘Dombrandt is more of a hybrid 8-cum-back. He’s got great running skills in the open and he has worked really hard on his defensive game. His defensive game against Sale was outstanding.’
Age: 22 Position: Fly-half
Superstar No 10 can be England’s thriller from Manila, having inspired Harlequins to the Premiership title. A steel to go with his box of attacking tricks, he could hold the shirt for 10 years.
Eddie’s verdict: ‘We wouldn’t have selected Marcus if we didn’t think he could handle the criticism or the adulation. There’s an opportunity for him to add his own flavour and strengths to the team.
Age: 23 Position: Scrum-half
Pocket-rocket No 9 who could have been capped by Wales, where his parents live, before he won two caps this summer.
Faces a battle with Raffi Quirke for Ben Youngs’ long-held scrum-half shirt.
Eddie’s verdict: ‘Randall came in the summer and we had a good look at him. He’s had dislocated game time with Bristol (but) the last couple of games he’s been able to get some continuity.’
Age: 23 Position: Wing
Quickest winger in the league, half-Egyptian Radwan could force his way in ahead of Jonny May or Anthony Watson with rapid feet and game-breaking talent. Scored a hat-trick on debut v Canada.
Eddie’s verdict: ‘I saw a kid come into the England camp who basically had fallen into rugby, who was fast, had been knocked back, fought his way back into the Newcastle team and got some opportunities to score some tries. Now he’s really focused. If he keeps that going, he could end up the best winger in the world.’