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Scott Roberston needs to send Samipeni Finau on a Marcus Smith mission

By Ben Smith
England's Marcus Smith and Samipeni Finau of the All Blacks. (Photos by Joe Allison/Getty Images and Koki Nagahama - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Ahead of Scott Robertson’s first Test as head coach of the All Blacks, there is really only one positional group that hasn’t picked itself, and that is the loose forward combination.

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Even within that group, we’ve been told that Ardie Savea will play as a No 8, so that leaves the two flanker positions up for grabs between Dalton Papalii, Ethan Blackadder, Samipeni Finau and Luke Jacobson.

With England naming Marcus Smith at flyhalf for the opening match, the intriguing pick for blindside is Chiefs hitman Samipeni Finau who has a reputation for putting 10s under pressure.

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His Super Rugby season was littered with jarring post-pass tackles inducing panic and outrage on the X platform, with many concerned with the legality of the timing of the hits that left a handful of Aussie 10s writhing in a heap on the grass.

Smith is now England’s key man. Veterans George Ford and Owen Farrell have carried the torch for so long and been in and around Smith in England camp until now.

Despite debuting in 2021, the 2022 calendar year was Smith’s big step up at international level, starting at No 10 all through the Six Nations, through the Australia tour, and the November series. It was a trying time that ended with Eddie Jones’ departure.

With Jones gone, Steve Borthwick went back to the tried and true, recalling George Ford. At last year’s Rugby World Cup, Smith was thrown out the back as a makeshift fullback.

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The 25-year-old is now back in the driver’s seat as a 10 ahead of the biggest series of his career, with Ford and Farrell really out of the picture for the first time in his international career.

He delivered a maestro performance against Japan in the Tokyo heat, scoring a scintillating try and assisting on two more, showing the full range of his attacking skillset.

The assignment for the All Blacks is pretty clear: shut him down and shut him up. The fiery competitor is one for theatre, not afraid of the war of words and certainly expresses himself verbally when on top.

He might have trouble talking after a Finau shot to the ribs that could knock the wind out of him. He won’t be able to feel his face in the Dunedin wind tunnel that is Forsyth Barr Stadium. When he momentarily can’t breathe as well, that sounds like the place Scott Robertson will want to put him.

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And Samipeni Finau is the man to deliver that for the All Blacks.

Throwing Smith off his game, even just for a 15 to 20-minute period, can alter the Test completely. It is forgotten how quickly Ireland fell apart in the space of 10 minutes at Eden Park without Johnny Sexton in the first Test of the 2022 series.

A Sevu Reece intercept try sparked a three-try splurge that buried Ireland early as the All Blacks romped home to a big win.

Smith has much more to his game than many of Finau’s Super Rugby scalps. He has great feet, a vicious step and a lightning-fast goose that could see the mouse escape the clutches of the cat.

The lead rusher has been left clutching air plenty of times over Smith’s career, often only to look back and see the No 10 set up a try or score himself from the line break. But rarely if ever at Test level. And that is why the gamble is worth taking.

Finau is a rangy hybrid lock with a wide wingspan, his long reach is a valuable asset come linout time. Rarely does he miss when shooting out of the line, but if he does, he has that reach to fall back on to pull a jersey.

This is the biggest series of Marcus Smith’s career, a mountain to climb that hasn’t been conquered by the Harlequins playmaker: playing the All Blacks in New Zealand.

There are just three European teams in the pro era to win on New Zealand soil; the 2003 England team with all-time greats like Martin Johnson and Johnny Wilkinson, and the 2022 Ireland side with multiple World Player of the Year winners and buckets of experience. The 2009 French side is the only other to log a win.

England went on to win the Rugby World Cup and Ireland nearly equalled the record for the longest Test winning streak with 17. The common dominator with both of those teams is historic greatness in one way or another, something this England team does not have in any way, shape or form.

The third-placed finishers in this year’s Six Nations are being talked up as a genuine chance to do something. That Marcus Smith will deliver a victory over the All Blacks at home.

The side that fumbled their way through a loss to Scotland at Murrayfield in February with one of the worst handling performances of all-time will get it together like they did the week after at Twickenham against Ireland.

There is a lot of young, exciting talent in this England side, let’s be clear. But that typically doesn’t win down here.

And neither do sides that are inconsistent as England’s current bunch.

Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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Comments

28 Comments
f
finn 10 days ago

This is actually the opposite of what NZ should do.

If Ford or Fin Smith was playing then yes, you would want to target them because they orchestrate the entire attack.

But Marcus will typically only get involved when England are already on the front foot, at that point it’s best to stand off him a little bit so his sidestep doesn’t make you look a fool.

NZ's best bet is to target Mitchell as the team's primary playmaker, and so prevent Marcus from ever getting going.

S
Shaylen 10 days ago

Targeting one player with another is something that happens routinely but when a flanker or other forward targets a flyhalf it often doesnt result in anything good happening and sometimes can result in an untimely card

J
Jack 10 days ago

Marcus got absolutely targeted by Fiji in the World Cup. Google his top lip and bandaged head. The Champions Cup is the most physical club competition in the world, he regularly gets targeted there owing to his size, skill and influence.

Very happy if the ABs back row want to focus on him. Opens up space for some of England’s other rapid backs.

T
Toaster 10 days ago

He probably will start yes
I’m interested to see how Finau goes

When he burst on to the scene I thought yes
He’s been quite good this year highlighted by some torpedo hits which are very very close to being illegal so whilst he doesn’t want to dampen this facet of play he needs to be very careful or it’s all Sam Cane again..

Marcus Smith like DMac is very good at avoiding this sort of thing

m
monty 10 days ago

Yeh nah this is a bs column by a bs journo.

S
Samuel 10 days ago

dunno where that come from … Ben is that the best you got … send in one of ours to disable one of their… that’s a bit yellow or a cowards way or mentality at the very least and has no place in our game just ask Quentin., mate stand front of the mirror and say … I must do better

R
Reuben 10 days ago

Ireland didn't equal the 18 win streak record. The All Blacks killed it at 17 with the 28-24 Quarter Final elimination 😇

L
Liam 10 days ago

Lol Dunedin wind tunnel…. In a roofed stadium with walls.

Typical article from Ben

C
Chris 10 days ago

When the springboks do this (target the 10) you refer to it as cheap shots etc. Double standards.

i
i 10 days ago

You sound worried Ben 🤣

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