Opinion

Published on November 8th, 2017 | by Ed Krarup

Marcus Smith: Too soon for England rugby’s new hope?

Senior players in the England rugby camp have warned Marcus Smith – recently promoted from the U20 squad – that he will be “relentlessly targeted” in training, whilst head coach Eddie Jones has told the young fly-half that he “will be holding a lot of tackle bags.”

Being an 18-year-old in the full England squad sounds laborious, doesn’t it?

‘England have thrown those fresh out of school into the deep end before but with varying success’

But, there are probably few places Smith would rather be.

Over the next month England play Argentina, Australia and Samoa, and Jones has selected an inexperienced squad.

Of the 34 players, 14 have fewer than 10 caps, while Smith – who plays his club rugby for Harlequins – is one of four who are yet to make their debut.

Jones has stated that 80% of his World Cup squad will come from the training squad named last August – which the Philippines-born back was a part of – so these new boys are not just here to polish boots.

It is unlikely that the youngster, who only made his Premiership debut in September, will play a starring role in the upcoming series, but he must be a part of the Jones manifesto leading towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

So when his time does come, will he be ready?

That night in Brisbane

Selecting a teenage fly-half is not entirely abnormal. England have thrown those fresh out of school into the deep end before but with varying success.

Failure is word seldom associated with Jonny Wilkinson, but on the 1998 summer tour of Australia, the 19-year-old was given his first England start in the Brisbane Test match.  The visitors lost 76-0, their heaviest ever defeat, with the fly-half missing multiple kicks.

Much was expected of Wilkinson as England coach Clive Woodward fielded an experimental and nearly unrecognisable team; of the seven debutants, only three played for England again.

While Wilkinson had begun his England career off the bench  – as Smith will likely do – against Ireland during the 1998 Six Nations in the homely surroundings of Twickenham, his first start was damaging.

Johnny Wilkinson

Opposite number, Stephen Larkham, ran riot in the No.10 channel, scoring a hat-trick of tries as England fell apart in the second half, conceding seven tries and 11 in total.

Although Wilkinson went on to have a sensational career, the highlight being England’s World Cup victory in 2003 where he kicked the winning drop goal in extra time to beat hosts Australia in the final – the Newcastle fly-half’s proper introduction to Test rugby was a disaster. 

“I was always trying to avoid stains on my career path, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to wash this one off,” said a distraught Wilkinson as he reflected on his emotions immediately after the match. 

This uncertainty remained until a frank conversation with his father ended with the question “So what are you going to do about it?”

But did that night in Brisbane really have an adverse effect on Wilkinson’s career?

A World Cup winners medal, a Six Nations Grand Slam and a World Player of the Year award all arrived in 2003.

Add this to domestic titles won in England and France with Newcastle Falcons and Toulon, where he also won two consecutive European Cups.

Wilkinson also went on to score more points for England than anybody else (1179). All those achievements suggest he thrived despite his nightmare debut.

Golden boy

Danny Cipriani (pictured right) had a rather different experience during his first start for England.

Like Wilkinson, Cipriani, aged 20, started life as an international on the bench, playing a small part in the matches against Wales and Italy in the 2008 Six Nations.

But when Ireland visited Twickenham later in the tournament, he made his first start at fly-half – and was simply wonderful.

Ireland opened up a 10-0 lead within the first seven minutes, but from that point on, Cipriani stole the show.

His kicking was faultless, both from hand and the tee and such was the confidence in the Wasps youngster that he continued to kick goals even after the great Wilkinson entered the field to play alongside him at centre.

England had found their new hero, a successor to King Jonny’s throne.

Nearly 10 years have passed since that day but Cipriani has only played 14 times for his country and there is one main reason for this; indiscipline.

The eccentric utility back had been selected to start against Scotland a couple of weeks before the Ireland match but was dropped by head coach Brian Ashton for breaking team curfew. Considering how the rest of his career has unfolded this seems rather prophetic.

During the years that followed, drink-driving arrests, celebrity girlfriends and tabloid headlines clouded Cipriani’s undoubted ability.

He was unfortunate regarding injuries and fled to Australia to play for the newly-formed Melbourne Rebels in the Super Rugby competition.

While playing in the southern hemisphere may be a beneficial experience, England’s home-based eligibility rule denied him the chance of any international rugby until he returned to England with Sale Sharks in 2013.

But by that time, the ever-professional Owen Farrell and George Ford had firmly established themselves as more reliable options. The door for Cipriani had shut.

Now 30, the man once predicted to inject electric attacking intent into England’s back line has somewhat resurrected his career, rejoining Wasps from Sale in the summer of 2016 who have since re-established themselves as one of the Premierships dominant clubs.

But this will always be a case of unfulfilled potential.

Development

Smith will likely have to wait for his international cue, and will probably emerge from the substitutes as Wilkinson and Cipriani did.

Is he ready though? That is a question that can only be truly answered retrospectively.

Cipriani’s performance against Ireland looked assured and composed but off the field he was self-destructive, swearing in live interviews and falling out with teammates – namely Josh Lewsey, who accused Cipriani of deliberately missing tackles in a full contact training session.

Wilkinson, against Australia in 1998, was nervous. But that poor performance drove him to be better. He developed a perfectionist issue so severe he sought therapy. That attitude is why Wilkinson became one of the best ever.

Whether young Smith has the talent remains to be seen, but ability can be improved. A good attitude is far more difficult to obtain and Smith will need to prove his temperament to Jones.

And that starts by holding the tackle bags.

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