Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
New Zealand New Zealand
France France

FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Marcus Smith did what he simply had to do and that is declare himself as starting test fly-half'

Mick Cleary: 'Marcus Smith did what he simply had to do and that is declare himself as starting test fly-half'
4 weeks ago

England will have to contend with an entirely different form of heat the moment they land in New Zealand. From the sweat-box that is Tokyo to the wintry chill of the Otago Peninsula, the furnace-like pressure of contending with the All Blacks on their home soil will be felt from the moment that they land at Dunedin Airport and begin the lengthy journey into the city, past hills and pastures that attracted predominantly Scottish settlers long ago, past homesteads where rugby has always been the main topic of conversation, all the more so now that the national side are under new management and an old foe is looking to sneak a crafty win.

England’s impressive eight try win over a Japanese side that was commendably spirited but wholly out-classed was fitting preparation only in the sense that Steve Borthwick’s strongly-selected team had precious time together out where it matters on the field, humid and draining as it was. There are stress tests of an entirely different order and magnitude to come, a forensic examination of their skills, their mental strength, their togetherness and their ability to stand up and be counted.

England coped pretty well with all that came their way at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, with the conditions, with an initially lively but eight-debutant callow opposition, with the need to push-on from the promise of their end-tournament  Six Nations, with further honing their blitz defence as well as layering their attack, but this run-out was little more than a classroom test compared to the PhD appraisal they face in New Zealand. At least you know they’ve achieved something when Dan Cole features more energetically in press-defence than Harry Kane and his mates have managed.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
Manny Feyi-Waboso continued to grow as a Test wing and caused Japan’s defence problems (Photo Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

There will be no slack cut, though, if their discipline cracks with 17 penalties conceded and Charlie Ewels  making a reckless, numbskull clear-out on Michael Leitch to receive a red-card for the second successive test (albeit two years apart). England did, of course, famously overcome a on-field shortage when their 13 men (Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio in the sin-bin) held firm to win in Wellington in 2003. That their only other victory in New Zealand came 30 years earlier shows you the measure of how difficult England’s task is over the next three weeks. And that despite the fact that the All Blacks have to yet to play under new head coach, Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson and factoring in the rather significant element of them being without two of the greatest locks in the history of the game in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. New Zealand maybe in transition but their interim periods of rebuild tend to be a project that lasts hours rather than years. The next man has always stepped forward for the All Blacks.

England have the wherewithal to be competitive. That may seem a minimal requirement for a team that has been a World Cup finalist as well as bronze medallist in the last two global tournaments. Yet England have invariably struggled to punch their weight in New Zealand, although on their last visit there a decade ago they came within a whisker of causing upsets in the opening  tests before being blown away in the third.

They travel south into a Kiwi winter with plenty in their locker, and not just an entirely different thickness of clothing. They have a certain shape as well as identity about them even if they are in a mini-transitional era with stalwart figures such as Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes and Danny Care no longer on the roster.

Alex Mitchell also put in a decent shift although Harry Randall showed a certain fallibility in his box-kicking when he came on at scrum-half in the second-half. The Bristol No 9 was at his sniping best when scoring, however.

Yet two of the most impressive performers on Saturday filled two of those roles, Marcus Smith and Chandler Cunningham-South. Alex Mitchell also put in a decent shift although Harry Randall showed a certain fallibility in his box-kicking when he came on at scrum-half in the second-half. The Bristol No 9 was at his sniping best when scoring, however.

Marcus Smith did what he simply had to do and that is declare himself as a starting test fly-half for the next while. It may be reading too much into a match against lesser opposition but there was a heartening sense of the Harlequin recognising what this tour represents for him and for England. There was an eagerness to make things happen but not in a selfish, haphazard way. It would have been easy to get sucked into the helter-skelter ruck-and-run hot potato style of Japan with the ball flicking and fizzing around but Smith kept his poise. There was plenty of craft that accompanied his own natural instinct to run and probe. A trademark sharp-heeled, swerving try was complemented by his perceptive, against-the-grain kick-pass to Henry Slade that saw the centre in at the corner on the stroke of half-time.

Smith did get yellow-carded for an early tackle but that was the only blot in his copy-book. He has been around the scene – five years since appearing against the Barbarians – for the two All Blacks tests to quite fit into the career-defining category but there is little doubt that if in these two outings he shows the same measure of control and inventiveness then the no.10 shirt is his to lose. One way or the other, this is his moment.

Cunningham-South made sure that he made the most of his first start for England with a raw-boned display, busy in the lineout and destructive in the tackle. England did reunite their Kamikaze Kids combo of Tom Curry and  Sam Underhill in the second-half to give themselves options in the tone and calibre of back-row they want to field.

The contact area was an issue in the early stages as England struggled to get to grips with the low-bending rucking style of the Japanese. They will have to be primed to adapt more quickly at the Forsyth Barr Stadium to whatever Razor Robertson’s men throw their way or the test match will be out of reach pretty damn quickly.

There were plus marks in the backfield too from the likes of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso who popped up here and there to make a right nuisance of himself in giving England some much-needed go-forward.

The forward pack was solid enough but know that they will have to up their game by a few notches, particularly in the scrum, if they are to provide a platform against the All Blacks. Jamie George threw his line-out darts well and there was a bit more freshness about him in the loose.

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell has come of age as a Test player in the last 12 months but the All Blacks await (Photo Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

There were plus marks in the backfield too from the likes of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso who popped up here and there to make a right nuisance of himself in giving England some much-needed go-forward. Ollie Lawrence was disappointing in that regard but that may be a late-season hangover.

The Felix Jones rush defence was caught out at times but this was a more-than-useful chance to further fine-tune that timing. As with all things on a rugby field against the All Blacks, if one element is out-of-kilter then they will locate it and exploit it.

It will take something special for rugby to wrest sporting attention its way in the coming weeks with the Euros and Wimbledon garnering top billing but the dispatches from Tokyo show that Borthwick’s England are eminently capable of grabbing a headline or two themselves.

It’s a beguilingly spare and elemental environment that England are headed towards, albeit livelier than in the days when the Rolling Stones toured there with Keith Richards noting in his autobiography that Dunedin was so dead he had thought of standing on his head to see if he could recycle the drugs to liven himself up. It promises to be harsh and unforgiving.

It will take something special for rugby to wrest sporting attention its way in the coming weeks with the Euros and Wimbledon garnering top billing but the dispatches from Tokyo show that Borthwick’s England are eminently capable of grabbing a headline or two themselves.

USER NOTICE:

As part of a series of planned improvements, we will need you to reset your RugbyPass password from 24/07/24 to continue commenting on articles.

You don’t need to change anything until that time.

Thank you,

Comments

3 Comments
B
Barry 28 days ago

He does look the business, especially with a firing pack In front of him. He could use another 7-8 kilos to be fair.

A very well timed, and legal, tackle would still put manners in him.

T
Tom 28 days ago

Smith has never had a fair crack of the whip until now. He had no chance to shine playing 10 with Faz outside him with no running threat, kicking all possession and calling the shots from 12. Other than that he's played off the bench or fullback and based on that the majority of English fans came to the conclusion that he's not a test player. Ridiculous. He's finally in an environment where he can shine but he needs to be given time to develop his game management skills and allowed to make mistakes.

Load More Comments

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search