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Dylan Hartley: 'I would have started Fin Smith against Japan'

By Liam Heagney
Marcus Smith chats to Fin Smith at England training (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Former England skipper Dylan Hartley has claimed that Fin Smith should have been handed a first Test start this Saturday versus Japan rather than have Marcus Smith take the shirt from the unavailable George Ford. Northampton rookie Smith recently helped the Saints to Gallagher Premiership glory at Twickenham, but he has only been chosen as a replacement for this weekend’s tour opener in the Far East.

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Harlequins’ Smith hasn’t started for England since last October’s bronze medal final versus Argentina at the Rugby World Cup, a fixture where he was selected at full-back with Owen Farrell starting his final match at his country’s No10 before embarking on his Test sabbatical.

Both Smiths played twice each off the bench during the Guinness Six Nations, Fin making a debut away to Italy and also featuring in Scotland while Marcus was out with injury before returning to face Ireland and France, but Steve Borthwick has now chosen Marcus as his No10 with Ford not touring due to an achilles injury.

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The tour also features a two-Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July, a schedule that left retired skipper Hartley suggesting that Borthwick should have gone with Fin Smith versus the Japanese. Speaking to Grosvenor Sport, Hartley said: “In the absence of Farrell and Ford, the tour is being billed as make or break for Marcus. Owen and George fought for the 10 shirt.

“Marcus isn’t going anywhere. He is a class player. Likewise, Fin Smith. We are obsessed with the 10 shirt and who is our next Jonny Wilkinson. I understand that because you build your attack around that player and the scrum-half.

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“The Smiths complement each other. Marcus is world class and can do things other players can only dream of. Fin has had a blockbuster season, up for player of the year, won a trophy and guided his team. His form is consistent. For me the balance is great.

“I thought Fin should start and pair him with Alex Mitchell, who has guided Northampton to the title. They are the key cogs in the big machine. You need continuity and they have an almost telepathic understanding.”

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Saturday’s match in Tokyo, which is being exclusively streamed live on RugbyPass TV in the UK and Ireland, will pit England coach Borthwick against his former boss Eddie Jones, who has taken over the Japanese following his year-long misadventure with Australia.

Hartley also reflected on what Jones originally brought to England when appointed ahead of the 2016 Six Nations and how he is now changing as a coach in his dealings with players. “He did take it to extremes but that is in the past now. He is changing. I had a text exchange with him recently and was talking about a player. I asked him if he was going to get the ‘Old Eddie’ or the ‘New Eddie’. He said: ‘Ah mate, a bit of old, and a bit of new. Times have changed!’

“The England team environment I was in after the 2015 World Cup was very different and to that at the end of Eddie’s reign. In 2015 England were a s*** show after the World Cup. There was no backbone, no belief and Eddie inherited that squad.

“Eddie came in and had to change things. When you do that you cannot pull band aid plaster off slowly. You have to rip it off and jump straight in. He made us fitter, made us train harder. He showed us what professionalism looked like.

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“For the three years I was involved, it was hard. But we were laying the foundations for a new culture and a better one which saw us to the 2019 World Cup final and the semi-finals in 2023 both after poor Six Nations.

“Do the hard stuff then you can take the foot off a bit when people have the routine stuff ingrained in them, organised, diligent. When Eddie came in we needed to change. He came in and said, ‘We are going to do this and have to, and it will be ugly’.

“We benefited from it. And that was the start of a pretty successful period in English rugby history. The foundations were laid by a hard man who delivers results. Most players respected and appreciated being driven like that. That way you maximise your potential. Eddie won’t need to shake the foundations too much in Japan. Their culture is about respect and they will do it.”

Hartley added that Jones’ departure from England in December 2022 wasn’t nice. “As a very matter of fact person, when a job is over, it’s over. No looking back. But England owes him huge thanks. Someone said to me how you enter an organisation is very important and so is how you leave one.

“The taste in the mouth over Eddie’s departure wasn’t good. The pitchforks were out for him. It all collapsed like a ton of bricks. But I respected him because he was consistent throughout. He is true to his colours. He fronts up every week. Says what he thinks and goes for it. He was always consistent.

“The English public and the RFU should have thanked him far more. He gave us some fantastic years of rugby and unearthed some talent, players I’d never heard of. He was at a club game all the time.

“He called meetings around the country when he wasn’t allowed to with players volunteering their time because they wanted to. He got us to put England first rather than club vs club, such as Northampton. Leicester. He got us way more connected.”

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