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The Esterhuizen-like player tipped for England start outside Smith

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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Former England utility back Austin Healey has called on Eddie Jones to pick Mark Atkinson as an Andre Esterhuizen-type player at inside centre for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations opener away to Scotland in order to get the best out of Marcus Smith at No10.

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The 22-year-old Smith only has five caps so far but the rookie Test level out-half has brought his game to new heights at Harlequins in recent times where he has had Esterhuizen, the out-of-favour Springboks midfielder who is bang in form, constantly creating go-forward ball to help create space at club level.

Healey now wants this type of combination style to be recreated at Test level in order to enhance what Smith has to offer and, writing before it emerged on Friday lunchtime that England skipper Owen Farrell had suffered an injury setback, he suggested it was time to turn away from positioning Farrell at No12 and to try someone very different, namely Gloucester’s Atkinson. 

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Rob Kearney and Alfie Barbeary – A Lion and a Wasp
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Rob Kearney and Alfie Barbeary – A Lion and a Wasp

The 31-year-old is an unknown at Test level having only made a short debut off the bench in last November’s Autumn Nations Series win over Tonga, but Healey reckons he has the tools to help bring out the attacking best that is constantly seen of Smith at Harlequins with Esterhuizen playing outside him.  

“What really makes you tick when you are a player like Smith is that you only really need three players to be on your wavelength: your inside centre and your wings,” reasoned Healey in his latest column in the UK Telegraph

“The players out wide are trying to recognise the space which you have already spotted, and your twelve is there to drop the ball off to, who then makes ground. So even when you get caught a little bit in the pocket with the defence in front of you, you can ship the ball on to your twelve for a power option and power makes ground before you try again. It’s like having a reset button, or an extra life in the video game of rugby.

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“Without Manu Tuilagi in that England squad, and with no time yet announced for his return, Smith does not have that disposable option to make ground. Owen Farrell is a great player, but for all of his quality traits, with Smith and Farrell it feels like England have an either/or scenario, rather than selecting both. By doing so, you are taking a bit of Smith’s edge away.

“The closest option England have with Tuilagi out to replicate what Smith gets from Andre Esterhuizen at Harlequins is with 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.

“Assuming Tuilagi is not fit to face Scotland, I would play the following backline: Ben Youngs and Smith, probably Atkinson at twelve because he is the most like Esterhuizen, with Henry Slade at 13. Joe Marchant on the right wing, Freddie Steward at full-back, and then Max Malins on the left wing.”

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