How Marcus Smith could run England's attack from fly-half, and two more tactical questions

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Eddie Jones and Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt
Eddie Jones and Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt

Announcing a squad of 34 names, Eddie Jones has stepped out on the road towards three autumn Tests that lead to the next World Cup.

That tournament is two years away, and two wins next month must be a minimum requirement as Tonga, Australia and South Africa come to Twickenham. We should find out the answers to three pertinent questions, too.

Can Marcus Smith run England's attack?

By his own admission, Danny Care is hopelessly biased when it comes to what he wants from England this autumn. But the 34-year-old also knows how to bring out the best in his half-back partner.

Before storming to Premiership glory last season, Harlequins held a team meeting and asked to attune their tactics to the instincts of Marcus Smith.

“We said to the coaches: ‘Give us a framework where Marcus can be the leader of the pack and make a decision in an instant based on what he sees the defence doing’,” Care told this week’s edition of The Magic Academy podcast.

“You can tell him that the defence will do something in a classroom the week before, but that makes no sense. [An opponent] might do something completely different.

“You inspire a player to make their own decisions, and not to worry about making the wrong one because you trust them and the other 14 lads will back them up.”

If he is to adopt a similar policy, Eddie Jones is not ready to reveal that publicly. England’s head coach was cool on the subject of Smith yesterday, stressing that the fly-half had to get into his match-day 23 first.

It is a salient point. Owen Farrell, emphatically named as captain, is an alternative option at fly-half. Manu Tuilagi and Mark Atkinson are capable inside centres, perhaps reducing the possibility of a Smith-Farrell axis.

And would that combination work anyway? The half-empty view is that Smith’s style would be cramped. Then again, Farrell could guide his younger colleague while providing an extra passing and kicking outlet.

They would surely need the muscle of Tuilagi rather than the guile of Henry Slade at outside centre, though. Quick ruck ball will be key to any attacking evolution for England. Smith clearly benefits from the heft and tenacity of André Esterhuizen at Harlequins.

A Smith-Tuilagi-Slade collaboration looks complementary. The Farrell-Tuilagi-Slade alliance has some famous Test victories. You could swap Atkinson for Tuilagi in either midfield and retain balance.

“The best 10s I’ve seen always play with a very strong 12,” said Jones, cryptically. He did then describe Farrell as a “strong running player” with a “strong kicking game”, before outlining that Atkinson “plays through the line a bit more” and that Tuilagi “is more of a gain-liner”.

Jones wants to instill a “really aggressive mind-set of attacking space” and did give Smith scope to conduct matters during wins over USA and Canada in July.

While England defended, Smith loitered in the back-field to lend his vision and distribution to counter-attacking opportunities.

This interplay with Joe Cokanasiga against Canada comes a couple of phases after an aerial exchange. There does not seem to be anything prescribed about it.

Smith simply senses space on his left shoulder and feeds Cokanasiga, supporting his powerful wing to receive an offload:

Intuition is Smith’s unique selling point, although Harlequins operate with a loose framework. They spread their forwards in a 1-3-3-1 formation across the field. England have done similar.

To paint Smith as a fast, loose maverick would be misguided as well. He kicked more often (10.2 times per 80 minutes according to Opta) than any other Premiership fly-half last season.

Only two players, Semi Radradra of Bristol Bears and Northampton scrum-half Alex Mitchell, bettered his record of creating an average of 1.31 line-breaks per 80 minutes.

Smith thrived with the responsibility Harlequins bestowed on him. Care wants England to be just as trusting.

“I’m hoping that, if Marcus gets those keys to number 10, it means they are going to play a slightly different way,” added Care, who was discarded in 2018 as part of Jones’ first post-Lions revamp.

“If they don’t, we ain’t going to see the real Marcus. And we want to see the real Marcus.”

Who takes on the Billy Vunipola roles?

Billy Vunipola’s absence leaves a sizeable hole in the England squad. Appropriately enough, there are three potential successors in Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds and Callum Chick.

They each possess different attributes. Chick was labelled as a “traditional gain-line No 8” and a “strong defender around the ruck” on Monday afternoon.

Jones indicated that Simmonds could be fielded at openside flanker because of his breakdown improvements. “I think his time with the Lions has put some finishing touches on his game,” said the Australian.

Dombrandt’s defence impressed Jones despite Harlequins’ 28-22 loss to Sale last Friday. Due to his “great running skills in the open”, the hope is that Dombrandt could enhance England as an attacking force.

Tom Curry would be a contingency should Jones wish to team him up with Courtney Lawes and Sam Underhill. The back-row balancing act will take a great deal of thought, because Billy Vunipola’s resourcefulness is not always universally appreciated.

One facet of his performance against Bath on Sunday was his lineout work. He is not a regular jumper, but lifts, mauls and fizzes the ball away from set pieces depending on the plan of attack. His skills provide rare variety.

Watch this pass into midfield from an off-the-top transfer:

Minutes later, Vunipola sperheads a pushover after lifting Maro Itoje:

Before half-time, he started in the scrum-half slot again and peeled down the blindside to release Jamie George:

Curry has been a lineout link man for club and country. Elsewhere, forwards such as Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill, Sam Underhill and Courtney Lawes will need to help their backline generate momentum in heavy traffic. Simmonds and especially Dombrandt would be better suited to space in wider areas.

Among those to have amassed over 400 Test match minutes under Jones, Vunipola is the second-most frequent carrier (at 14.3 carries per 80 minutes).

Only Care, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Owen Farrell and Piers Francis average more than his tally of 5.8 successful passes per 80 minutes, too. There are bases to cover while Billy Vunipola is exiled.

Freddie Steward, Max Malins… or both?

Jones’ efforts to refresh and rebuild after the 2019 World Cup final have been thwarted by cancelled matches and untimely injuries. Of course, coaches across the globe have had to deal with similar setbacks.

While many anticipate a head-to-head between Freddie Steward and Max Malins for the full-back berth – unless George Furbank or Tommy Freeman crash the party – we could see a double-act rather than a duel.

Jones attempted to team up Max Malins and Freddie Steward at wing and full-back for the England A contest against Scotland at Welford Road, which was called off due to a Covid outbreak.

When the pair did start together in these positions the following weekend, Malins lasted 10 minutes of an eventual win over the USA before succumbing to a shoulder ligament injury.

At the weekend, Malins plundered a hat-trick for Saracens from the left wing. He was solid positionally and chased kicks well – prerequisites for England wide men. Here, in the third minute, he times his run to pursue Farrell’s up-and-under. Watch Ben Earl.

Malins cuts down Anthony Watson and the openside flanker pounces to force a penalty.

A predatory interception brought about Malins’ second try:

Later on, he shifted to full-back and became a more prominent playmaker. He and Farrell share an understanding and often dovetail as first- and second-receivers for Saracens, which helps his cause.

Jonathan Joseph roamed off the wing to link phase-play for England and Malins distributed a great deal while in that position for Bristol Bears last season:

Freddie Steward, meanwhile, continually troubled Worcester Warriors with his developing running game.

Here, early in the second half, he feeds Ford in the back-field:

Nemani Nadolo charges ahead and Steward tracks Ford…

…arcing around his fly-half on the next phase:

There is a call for a delayed pass and Steward bursts through. Although an errant offload spurns the chance, it was a promising moment.

More off-the-ball intelligence came later, even with Tigers down to 14 men. Steward takes this quick lineout to Ford:

Now watch where he ends up, diving over on the opposite side of the field:

This try was disallowed due to a neck-roll from Marco van Staden. Still, it demonstrated that Steward, who has appeared on the wing for Leicester is far from just a high-ball diffuser. Steve Borthwick came close to excitement yesterday on suggesting that “we are only scratching the surface” of the 20-year-old’s potential.

Steward and Malins are a promising and interchangeable pair. They could leave Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Adam Radwan and Freeman to scrap for a single spot to complete an accomplished back three.

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