Eddie Jones tried so hard last week to squash the expectation surrounding Marcus Smith that he talked himself into trouble by patronising Emma Raducanu.
The England head coach should have let this match do the talking for him instead. It was so attritional that even a player of Smith’s flamboyant talent barely had the chance to escape its dour clutches.
This was hardly Alas Smith and Jones because England ran out comfortable 32-15 winners in a result gilded by an improbable late try from hooker Jamie Blamire and Smith finished the game with a flourish, a penalty and a conversion, after Owen Farrell had gone off injured.
Marcus Smith enhanced his reputation further as he helped England to overcome Australia
Farrell and Smith are a roundhead and cavalier partnership in midfield and this was a day for the roundheads.
But it was still another promising step forward for Smith in what was only his fourth England cap against the best opposition he has faced so far. He dictated the pace of England’s play and refused to be rattled out of his stride in his team’s eighth successive victory over Australia.
He also provided the moment of inspiration for England’s first try. With every game he plays, it becomes more evident he represents England’s future.
Less than two years out from the World Cup in France and with the pace of change within the squad beginning to quicken, we have reached a point in England’s development – and in the development of the game in this country – where every match doubles as a referendum on the tenure of Jones as head coach. Jones sets the tone and there are many who find that tone dissonant.
Perhaps it is always that way with high-profile coaches, particularly when they are as bullish and confrontational and mischievous as Jones. And the scrutiny around England’s direction of travel was always going to become sharper after England finished fifth in the Six Nations Championship earlier this year. Jones’s relationship with Smith is set to become central to that direction of travel.
Smith is set to be key for England in the future and he helped dictate the pace of his team’s play
The argument around Jones is about the culture that surrounds the side, more than anything. In the run-up to this round of Autumn Internationals, his relentlessness, his ruthlessness and his thirst for confrontation have all been picked apart and used to illustrate the idea that he is not so much inspiring this England team so much as wearing it down.
One anecdote surrounded former assistant coach John Mitchell finally tiring of Jones’ incessant demands when Jones told him he could not go to watch his son, Daryl, play cricket for Middlesex on his day off. Mitchell went anyway and left the England set-up soon afterwards. Seeing Mitchell sitting proudly in the stands in Abu Dhabi last week as Daryl led New Zealand’s stunning victory over England in their World T20 semi-final, it felt like he made the right choice.
Eddie Jones heaped more scrutiny on himself with his comments about Emma Raducanu
Jones also heaped more scrutiny on himself with his comments last week about Britain’s US Open winner Raducanu. ‘There’s a reason why the young girl who won the US Open hasn’t done so well afterwards,’ he said. ‘What have you seen her on – the front page of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar or whatever it is, wearing Christian Dior clothes.’
Jones made the comments in the context of a discussion about Smith and the number of distractions that young sportsmen and women face as they try to maintain their focus but he was roundly criticised for what appeared, at best, a patronising attitude to Raducanu. He wrote her a letter and invited her to an England match at Twickenham. Her response remains unknown.
Jones is a keen student of other sports but his foray into women’s tennis prompted a wider discussion about his attitude towards high-profile, crowd-pleasing players like Smith and whether he – and the sport in general – distrusts them because they take away from the team ethos.
‘There should be an attempt to raise the profile and popularity of the game,’ former England fly-half Danny Cipriani said, ‘because it hasn’t really progressed that much in the past decade. Other sports have created superstars – and are very proactive – but rugby has never done that. The game is almost failing in that way because of outdated attitudes towards any individual who receives attention.’
Smith has the talent, flamboyance and image to become a crossover star for English rugby
Many believed that Cipriani did not get the opportunities his talent deserved because of a misconception that he was somehow too glamorous for rugby and it was easy to interpret Jones’s comments about ‘the young girl’ as an early warning to Smith not to let his head be turned by the attention that is coming his way.
Smith has the talent, the flamboyance and the image to become the kind of cross-over star that English rugby has not had for some time and even in the midst of an attritional battle with the dogged Australian side, there were times when his ability made the difference and unlocked the opponents’ stubborn defence.
The most obvious example came just eight minutes into the game when Smith took the ball near the Australian 22. He delayed for a split second with a half-step that rooted the Wallaby defence to the spot and then fed the ball to the onrushing Freddie Steward at the perfect moment. It was a beautiful piece of timing and awareness. Steward sprinted over the try-line.
Australia tried their utmost to throw Smith off his game but he managed to shake it off
It was dour game littered with handling errors and the Australians tried several times to throw Smith off his game by targeting him with late hits. Hunter Paisami tried to hit Smith into next week with a crunching tackle after Smith had released the ball but only succeeds in hurting himself. Smith shook it off easily enough.
‘When he’s played 50 tests and won a World Cup, we can talk him up,’ Jones said of Smith last week. Smith has at least made a promising start towards that goal.