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'Combine him and Marcus Smith, you'd have the best attacking 10/12 in the Six Nations'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Gloucester boss George Skivington has endorsed the suggestion by ex-England international Austin Healey that Eddie Jones must pick Mark Atkinson at outside centre to face Scotland in the Guinness Six Nations in order to get the best out of Marcus Smith at out-half. Before it emerged that Owen Farrell had suffered a fresh ankle injury, media pundit Healey had called on England to pick an Andre Esterhuizen-type player at No12. 

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“The closest option England have with (Manu) Tuilagi out to replicate what Smith gets from Andre Esterhuizen at Harlequins is Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson. If you are going to pick Smith, you have to play either Atkinson or Luke Northmore, Smith’s uncapped Harlequins teammate, at inside centre,” wrote Healey last week in his UK Telegraph column

After Farrell was subsequently injured and ruled out of the entire Six Nations campaign following an operation on Wednesday, England boss Jones suggested what he might do to fill the vacancy. “We have got other experienced backs. We may move Sladey [Henry Slade] in one spot from 13 to twelve. 

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“It’s important for any ten in the world, whether it is Marcus Smith or Finn Rusell or whether it is (Romain) Ntamack for France that the twelve is a good communicator, takes some of the pressure away from the ten in terms of the defence role. Marcus’ situation is no different from any other ten in the world.”

While Slade is indeed an option to start at Murrayfield at inside centre (he moved to No12 just eight minutes into the November win over South Africa after the Tuilagi injury), Jones also has form for looking elsewhere. Only last February he elected to pick the unheralded Ollie Lawrence to play the No12 role when Farrell started at out-half in the 2021 Six Nations opener versus Scotland at Twickenham. That didn’t work out well as England were beaten 11-6.

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However, with the 22-year-old Smith now the favoured England out-half having brought his game to new heights at Harlequins in recent times where he has had Esterhuizen constantly creating go-forward ball to help create space at club level, Gloucester boss Skivington believes the No12 jersey versus Scotland is readymade for Atkinson, the 31-year-old who made his Test debut in the November win over Tonga. 

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“Mark is the best attacking twelve in the league,” insisted Skivingon when quizzed by RugbyPass at his weekly Gloucester media briefing ahead of this Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership trip to Newcastle. “He can straighten the line, he can carry hard, he has got soft hands and he can offload. He has got a great vision for where the space is. 

“If you want to play an attacking brand of rugby there is no one better than Mark Atkinson at twelve and if you put him with Marcus Smith, you are seriously going to challenge defences because they are not going to know where to go. 

“He smashes people in D as well, he is a very good defender. Again, he is the best English twelve in the league. I don’t think that anyone else consistently does what he does and when he is on his mettle he is a game-changer. It would be very, very exciting to get him stringing a string of games together for England and you combine him and Marcus Smith, you’d have the best attacking 10/12 in the Six Nations.”

What type of character is Atkinson, a relatively unknown player with the potential to be thrown into the maelstrom of the upcoming Six Nations with England? “The thing about Mark is he is quite a relaxed character. He is intense when he is on the field but around the place, he is a core member of that cultural group and he has a good time. He enjoys what he does, he enjoys being with the boys, he enjoys the social side of having some fun with the lads but there has certainly been a growth in him over the last 18 months. 

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“He has become a leader in the group, he is more vocal than he was 18 months ago. He gets involved, helps lead the attack, he is very vocal if the squad has an issue or is discussing something amongst themselves. Getting that cap was well deserved. He deserves some more and if he gets the opportunity he will be great, but it [his Test debut] just gave him a chance. 

“If I am honest it probably made him realise how good he could be and the window is there for him, and Eddie certainly backs him enough to have him in the squad and hopefully backs him to play. The realisation that he could be an absolute world-class player was just good for him because everyone else has known it for a long time and to be given that vote of confidence because he is a little bit older is just massive for him. 

“He is a big presence, he is a massive part of this club, he is a big part of the spine of the squad and if he plays more and more he will just grow. Again, someone like Mark, he can get better and better. I am not sure what his ceiling is. 

“He came into top-flight rugby a little bit later, he did some lower league stuff and fought his way up and he has got better and better as the years have gone on. Like I say, he has had massive growth in the last twelve months in the hard-edge part of the game if you like and I still think he has got more and more improvement to be made, which is exciting for Gloucester and exciting for England. I don’t think how old he really matters at this point.”

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