Eddie Jones has given himself a licence to skill. The coach who plucked Matt Giteau from the obscurity of club rugby in Canberra at the start of the decade to make him a Wallaby sees the same potential in the Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith, who this week links up with the England squad for the training camp in Oxford.
As the fifth outside-half in the squad Smith’s chances of appearing in one of England’s three autumn internationals at Twickenham are remote. The 18-year-old has not been picked for the present but the future with Jones wanting a close look at a player who in his few appearances for Quins has shown an old-fashioned, natural instinct to run a game.
Jones has used his two years in England to visit Premier League football clubs, impressed at the high skill levels of players in attack. Defence has dominated for most of the 22 years rugby union has been professional, with many countries and clubs getting players to bulk up before they focus on their skills, something Jones is anxious to change.
“I have always said that there are talented rugby players in England, although sometimes it is hard to find them because they are not given an opportunity at the early age they are in other countries and so you have to dig deeper, but football impresses me because players’ individual skill levels are incredible,” says Jones.
“In 20 years of professionalism in rugby, defensive skills have improved enormously but there is a question mark over whether attacking skills have and I do not think we pay enough attention to a really important area.
“Individual skills have to be more consciously developed at an earlier age. It has not happened, except in New Zealand where they focus on individual skills early, because junior development became specialised. People are coaching for a living at that level and how do you get a side to win? By making them organised. You can organise defence and you can organise attack and it takes away from individual skill development because you don’t have time to do both.
“It is something that needs to be addressed. What I like about Marcus Smith is that he has a feel for the game: he understands it and what he is going to do. He does things no one tells him to and, while there are areas he needs to work on, when you have a feel for the game you have a chance of making it as a 10.
“We have to manage him because young players are like flowers, delicate. It is about how much water and sunshine they receive. Too much too early they grow up too quickly and their base foundations aren’t strong enough. You have to quietly build them up over a period of time until they are ready. I am not sure yet if he is good enough; we have the opportunity to find out.”
Jones’s squad is a mixture of his Six Nations winners and those who impressed in Argentina in the summer, such as the flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, the lock Nick Isiekwe, the prop Harry Williams and the fly-half Piers Francis. He omitted four of this summer’s Lions in New Zealand: George Kruis and James Haskell have had injuries but Kyle Sinckler, the Harlequins prop who was involved in an incident in an Auckland nightclub after the final Test, and Jonathan Joseph have been left out and are unlikely to face Argentina in the first November Test, with the coach saying that those in the squad he named on Friday have a head start in selection over those who were omitted.
“Some players are off the pace and that is reflected in selection,” Jones says. “Why they are off the pace? Because of the Lions, because of their own attitude, because their girlfriend has left them, because their boyfriend has left them? We don’t know but these are things we need to find out.”
The World Cup starts in Japan in two years this weekend. Jones is halfway through his stint as England head coach, adamant he will take his leave of the game at the end of the tournament. When asked which of the three bids he backed for the hosting rights to the 2023 event, he says he does not care because he will be somewhere else. But his passion for the sport and coaching still burns so fiercely it remains hard to see him walking away.
“At the moment we’re only worried about Argentina,” he says when asked how he viewed the state of the leading nations at the midway point between two World Cups.
The southern hemisphere supplied the four semi-finalists in 2015 but Argentina have won three and lost 15 of their Tests against tier one nations since then, South Africa’s recovery from the worst year in their history in 2016 was burst by New Zealand last weekend and Australia always seem to be one defeat away from a crisis.
“Argentina are trying to work out their identity and it’s difficult,” says Jones. “You’ve seen Australia up and down, South Africa up and down, New Zealand remain strong and France can be anything. The great thing is we are developing competition: on Thursday I had to ring 50 players to tell them they were not in the squad. That’s how much it has improved. But you never get ahead of the game. Life is full of contradictions: what you have in mind now might not be the case tomorrow.”