English rugby has a potential superstar in its midst in Marcus Smith, and Eddie Jones knows that all too well.
It’s why Jones — in comments that have been pounced on by some as crass and irresponsible — has chosen to warn the 22-year-old flyhalf of the distractions of potentially being the next big thing in his sport, using surprise U.S. Open tennis champion Emma Raducanu as a reference.
“There’s a reason why the girl who won the U.S. Open hasn’t done so well afterwards,” the England coach said, somewhat harshly given Raducanu’s decision to scale back her playing time since her title triumph at Flushing Meadows in September. “What have you seen her on? The front page of Vogue, the front page of Harper’s Bazaar, whatever it is, wearing Christian Dior clothes.
“He is grounded,” Jones added on Smith, “but they all start off grounded.”
Well, it could be takeoff for Smith’s international career on Saturday, with his selection at No. 10 for the test match against Australia at Twickenham thrusting him into the limelight.
It’ll be his fourth cap for England — after games against the United States and Canada in the summer and a try-scoring appearance off the bench against Tonga last weekend — while there was also a surprise, mid-tour call-up by the British and Irish Lions as injury cover in South Africa in July.
But this weekend feels like the true start to his international career.
“He is progressing in a nice way, but this is his biggest test,” Jones said. “He hasn’t played a tier one country yet.”
The way he plays, the sharp and quick-witted Smith is likely to embrace that pressure and expectation, just like he did when piloting Harlequins to its first English league title in nine years last season. He made his debut for Quins at age 18, also at Twickenham, so he’s no stranger to English rugby’s national stadium.
Australia poses a big challenge, though, especially with the Wallabies seeking a reaction as they come off a third straight loss to Scotland, 15-13 at Murrayfield on Sunday.
Their recent record is even worse against England, failing to win any of their seven meetings since the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Their last match was at the 2019 World Cup, where England won 40-16.
Those seven meetings were typically preceded by verbal clashes between Jones and then-Australia coach Michael Cheika, who were former teammates at Sydney club Randwick. Cheika is no longer around but Jones is, and he was complimentary about Australia’s below-par performance at Murrayfield.
It’s all just mind games, though, to Australia scrumhalf Nic White.
“I’m certainly not reading too much into what he says,” White said. “He’s the king in rugby circles with the media and that sort of stuff.”
Australia’s first outing on its European tour certainly took its toll, with Rennie losing to injury winger Jordan Petaia (hamstring) and, more significantly, props Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou to blows to the head.
They will miss the England game while serving return-to-play protocols, leaving Australia without a specialist tighthead.
James Slipper will start in that position at international level for the first time since 2012, having briefly filled in there against Scotland.
That should boost England’s chances of gaining a foothold at scrum time, not for the first time in matches between these two rivals, and Jones had the luxury of selecting an unchanged pack from the one that dominated against Tonga.
Where Jones did tinker was in the back division, with Smith’s inclusion pushing captain Owen Farrell into the centers. As a result, Manu Tuilagi — a strapping center — will play on the wing for only the second time for England, after an experiment there against New Zealand in 2014
Tuilagi might be targeted with the high ball but he’ll strengthen England in other ways, most likely by punching holes in midfield when coming off the wing.
“We decided we would pick the best players and the players will mix and match on the field to their strengths,” Jones said, adding on Tuilagi: “He can handle 12, 13, 11, 14 — all those positions — with aplomb and he is in the best condition of his career."
Jones also sought to clarify his comments about Raducanu, saying his remarks might have been taken out of context.
“There was no criticism of Emma,” the Australian said. “I have sent her a letter just to reinforce that and hopefully we’ll see her at Twickenham shortly.”
England: Freddie Steward, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, Marcus Smith, Ben Youngs; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Courtney Lawes, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Jamie Blamire, Bevan Rodd, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds, Raffi Quirke, Max Malins.
Australia: Kurtley Beale, Andrew Kellaway, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami, Tom Wright, James O'Connor, Nic White; Rob Valetini, Michael Hooper (captain), Rob Leota, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, James Slipper, Folau Fainga’a, Angus Bell. Reserves: Tolu Latu, Tom Robertson, Oliver Hoskins, Will Skelton, Pete Samu, Tate McDermott, Noah Lolesio, Izaia Perese.
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