Marcus Smith and Ellis Genge were among England's best performers this summer
Credit: PA/Getty Images
Even without COVID-19 causing trouble, prompting the decision that there would be no overseas tour and then cancelling an ‘A’ fixture against Scotland, this summer was always going to be difficult to gauge for England.
Two wins over USA and Canada have yielded precious few conclusions. But, with Rugby World Cup 2023 the priority for Eddie Jones and the Rugby Football Union, there have been seeds of promise for England supporters.
Marcus Smith emerges with quiet class
Whether or not Marcus Smith plays very much out in South Africa, and his game-time for the British and Irish Lions may be extremely limited, it has already been a fairy-tale season for the 22-year-old. Besides, if we think of the respective career trajectories of Elliot Daly, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler, the trip could catapult his England prospects.
All three of those players travelled to New Zealand with the Lions in 2017. Each of them were on the periphery of Eddie Jones’ first-choice side, but Warren Gatland took a punt. Upon returning, they established themselves and had become regular England starters by the next World Cup two years later.
The 2017 Lions tour was a catalyst for Kyle Sinckler to kick on as an England regular
Credit: Getty Images
Smith has traffic in front of him. Owen Farrell is with the Lions and George Ford’s quality is seemingly easy to undervalue. Even so, the Harlequin’s stock will have swelled during two victories over USA and Canada thanks to the measured nature of his performances.
The build-up to Adam Radwan’s first try on Saturday encapsulated Smith’s value. It begins with full-back Freddie Steward returning a kick. Keep an eye on Smith:
Canada have just been reduced to 14 men thanks to Reegan O’Gorman’s yellow card. Smith scans the blindside initially…
…before circling the ruck. When opposition back-rower Siaki Vikilani concedes a penalty advantage for failing to roll away, Smith comes to life.
This next screenshot shows England’s attacking structure. They have three forwards up flat to launch from scrum-half Harry Randall. Beyond that, hooker Jamie Blamire is out in midfield. Close to the far touchline is Alex Dombrandt.
As for the backs, Henry Slade and Radwan are not past the 15-metre line. But Smith knows the best way to give them time and space. You might expect him to stay in behind his three forwards for a pull-back. Instead, Smith demands the ball and slides beyond that pod to become the first-receiver:
This subtle, unfussy change is deceptive and allows Slade to feed Radwan just a second quicker than might have otherwise been the case:
Marcus Smith pass Canada
The flying Newcastle Falcon takes advantage:
⚡ RAPID RADWAN ⚡
What a super score from the debutant 🙌#ENGvCAN @Channel4 pic.twitter.com/Ng9m76VoFi
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 10, 2021
Minutes later, for Joe Cokanasiga’s second, Smith threw the penultimate pass in the try-scoring attack. Inside centre Dan Kelly was the man to release Cokanasiga on the edge. Crucially though, this came after Smith and the forward runners around him had caused Canada’s defensive line to concertina:
[email protected]_cokanasiga is a POWERHOUSE 💥#ENGvCAN @Channel4 pic.twitter.com/V18bbzdFKG
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 10, 2021
In the Premiership final for Harlequins, and indeed throughout the domestic season, we saw that Smith possesses the flamboyance and creativity to manufacture moments of brilliance without necessarily needing to be on the front foot. He is also developing composure and patience. Smith’s two Tests for England have brought understated individual displays that have facilitated those around him.
Jones likes to occupy an antagonistic medium. Criticise his side and he will defend them. Praise his side and he will point out the limitations of an opponent. After news had broken of Smith’s Lions call-up, Jones cited New Zealand great Dan Carter as a playmaker that had continually improved up until his late 30s. Having praised Smith’s attitude, Jones signed off with: “If he doesn’t believe everything that’s written about him, he’ll be alright.”
The desire to keep Smith’s feet on the ground is understandable. Then again, this summer does feel like a launch-pad.
Alternatives down the spine
After a fraught Six Nations shaped by the mixed form of his Saracens contingent, Jones will have conceded the need to bolster his options in certain positions – notably at number eight, at scrum-half, in midfield and at full-back.
Although reading into the selections of England’s head coach too deeply is fraught with danger, Harry Randall was an obvious winner this month. As far as scrum-halves vying to usurp Ben Youngs, neither Ben Spencer nor Alex Mitchell made a match-day squad.
Harry Randall's sharp distribution has been impressive
Credit: Getty Images Europe
Dan Robson is yet to be entrusted with a Test start in 14 appearances. He spent 45 minutes as an emergency wing against USA and 28 in his favoured position the following weekend. Randall, by contrast, was picked to start against Scotland A before retaining that role for the Tests.
While his kicking could be more consistent, his sharp distribution and sniping threat are promising attributes. Meanwhile, do not disregard the Under-20 Six Nations. Jack van Poortvliet is captaining the team with aplomb and could well climb the pecking order rapidly.
As for inside centre, Ollie Lawrence looked dangerous before being shunted to the wing and then suffering a concussion against USA. A week later, debutant Dan Kelly was assured. At the base of the scrum, Callum Chick and Alex Dombrandt impressed without dominating. Sam Simmonds has to be considered, too. All eyes turn to autumn, when answers will come.
Ellis Genge and Sam Underhill step up
In a Lions summer, one sometimes learns a great deal about players that have missed out from their respective responses to disappointment. Four years ago, for instance, George Ford and Joe Launchbury were excellent in Argentina.
Sam Underhill and Ellis Genge must have been among the marginal of England’s initial omissions from the Lions squad. If they were frustrated, they channelled those feelings in a positive manner.
Underhill has won 20 of his 24 England Tests, which reflects his importance to Jones. This turnover against Canada, directly from the kick-off, set a ruthless tone and typified his authoritative manner:
Similarly, Genge delivered on his promise to assume a leadership role. On Saturday at Twickenham, the 26 year-old racked up nine carries and made 63 metres over the 57 minutes he was on the field.
Genge’s bristling, tackle-busting runs were a central component of England’s strategy. They let him hang in the back-field to gather steam following loose opposition kicks and launched him in midfield from lineouts, here alongside Underhill:
In short, the loosehead prop got his hands on the ball in areas that you might expect a totemic number eight to operate. Jones might have been pondering life after both Vunipola brothers. Genge’s carrying could be handy for a lighter back-row combination without Billy. His scrummaging definitely appears more effective than that of Mako at the moment.
A thoroughly-deserved second-half try against Canada arrived from a clever lineout strike:
Genge loops around from the front of the set piece to offer himself to jumper Charlie Ewels. Instead, the ball goes to Randall and Kelly is the first-phase carrier.
Henry Slade and Lewis Ludlow service the ruck, leaving Genge free to burst over a phase later:
Speaking of Slade, another Lions contender, he did not perhaps assert himself with the same vigour as Genge and Underhill. A subplot of the autumn will be whether Jones can accommodate him and Elliot Daly into the same backline without compromising balance.
England’s pursuit of Sale Sharks and Scotland hooker Ewan Ashman suggests that they were keen to incorporate a dynamic hooker. Alfie Barbeary’s chance should come if the young Wasp can stay fit.
Still, Jamie Blamire can hardly have done much more than return four tries from two Tests – even if his hat-trick against Canada came from the back of three mauls. He and Curtis Langdon are capable of supporting Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie, neither of whom are going anywhere before 2023.
Jamie Blamire celebrates after completing his hat-trick
Credit: Getty Images
Spearheading strong shoves and contributing around the pitch, tighthead prop Joe Heyes was another to enhance his reputation. Neither Will Stuart nor Harry Williams have managed to become a definitive number two behind Sinckler. England travelled to Rugby World Cup 2019 with just two tightheads, remember.
At Leicester Tigers, Heyes has a gnarled mentor in Dan Cole. Having recently turned 22, his potential is substantial.
Varied, exciting back-three options
From the outset, Jones was eager to bring an intriguing mix to his back-three selection. He picked Max Malins as a roaming, distributing wing – the role that the on-loan Saracen had assumed for Bristol Bears – with Freddie Steward and Radwan to face Scotland A.
The following week, powerful Cokanasiga switched in for Radwan. Malins’ shoulder injury would have been irritating, but Radwan replaced him and shone against Canada.
Freddie Steward climbs to gather a high ball on Saturday
Credit: Getty Images Europe
With Steward dependable at full-back, Cokanasiga has offered heft and offloading ability. Malins is a rounded, sparky footballer and Radwan brings a slightly unconventional yet explosive style. Somehow, both Jonny May and Cheslin Kolbe come to mind when watching him.
Jones pointed out that Jack Nowell should return to the mix along with Anthony Watson and May. All in all, that constitutes formidable firepower.