Marcus Smith paid tribute to England’s World Cup-winning fly-half Jonny Wilkinson after his last-minute penalty clinched a famous one-point win over South Africa in fairytale fashion. Smith was given a masterclass in training by Wilkinson this week before going on to nail the 80th-minute kick to steer England to a dramatic 27-26 victory, avenging the 2019 World Cup final defeat.
Smith, 22, was making only his fourth England start and Jones has tipped the mercurial fly-half for big things, provided he doesn’t get “too much poison poured into his head”. It was a statement that echoed Jones’s recent warning about the pitfalls of fame, using the example of Emma Raducanu to do so.
Smith finished the match with 12 points, assuming kicking duties with Owen Farrell sidelined after ankle surgery. He revealed that the captain has been in regular contact this week but reserved special praise for Wilkinson, who has worked on consultancy basis with England in the past and made his first trip of the autumn into camp on Wednesday.
“It’s all down to him,” said Smith. “He’s been working hard with me and, again, putting his arm around me and allowing me to explore at the weekend. I appreciated it, big time. We said four weeks ago this was the game we wanted to target. The boys bought into the last four weeks. We got extremely close as a group. It was a massive, massive part of our journey as a young group of players and to beat the world champions in front of 82,000 at home was special. It’s a day I’ll never forget.
“I hit the kick and it was like slow-motion watching it sail through the posts. But we still had a job to do retrieving that kick-off. To win the penalty and properly celebrate at the end was amazing. This group will never forget that day.”
With Farrell a fitness doubt for the start of the Six Nations Smith is set to continue in his role as the spearhead of England’s attack when they return to the field at Scotland next February.
Jones said: “Look, he’s going to be good, mate. As long as you blokes don’t pour too much poison in his head. He’s a work in progress and each game he’s going to get a little bit better. I thought he did a great job but I know he’s going to be better in the Six Nations.”
In a thrilling finish Smith’s kick was the fourth time the lead changed hands in the final quarter, with South Africa coming back strongly in the second half. Jones conceded that England were “at breaking point” and finished the match with 18 penalties against them, but he heralded his side’s resilience after selecting the rookies Bevan Rodd and Jamie Blamire in his front row and losing Manu Tuilagi to injury in the eighth minute.
“Twenty minutes into the second half I thought we were almost at breaking point,” added Jones. “They were squeezing us at the scrum, winning more than their 50-50 of high balls and starting to get a little bit more out of their attack. We got away a bit in the first half but we knew they’d come back. They tend to win the second half and we just managed to hang in there, absorb the punishment and when we got the opportunity we managed to take it. As I said before the game, it’s a one-off between the first in the world and the third in the world and we’re happy to knock off the top team in the world.
“It’s an important win but our stated aim is to win the World Cup. It gives the players a lot of confidence. They’ve worked hard, enjoyed each other’s company and when they come into Six Nations they’ll have a spring in their step. We’ve never been bad. We had a bad Six Nations but we’re not a bad team. We had a tough period where we didn’t play well and we got a bit stale. We’ve refreshed ourselves now and we’ll go forward.”
South Africa’s head coach, Jacques Nienaber, was magnanimous in defeat, reflecting on how the last time the Springboks visited Twickenham they were also beaten by a solitary point in another nerve-shredding finish. “All week we spoke about how [England] are a quality team,” said Nienaber. “They had [eight] players from the World Cup final, we had 10 so there are a lot of similarities. They played well and they gave a proper Test match for their home fans.”