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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Eddie Jones exclusive: Marcus Smith was wasting his talent so I made him write down answers to three questions

I was always going to pick Marcus Smith for England’s summer squad, but I have long felt that all the talk around him has not been helpful – either to England or Marcus himself. Why was he so popular when he first came on the scene with Harlequins? He was a good-looking boy who had been to a big public school where rugby success was part of the culture. He had a Filipino background, so he also offered something a little bit different. There was a lot to like about him.

I actually saw him play as a schoolboy. At the 2015 World Cup, when I was coaching Japan in England, I went to watch him play in a game at Brighton College because everyone said he was going to be the next best thing. I went out of curiosity, as a coach, and not because I had any involvement with England then. I was impressed as he definitely had a great skill set.

But, somewhere down the line, he had lost that. I don’t have to tear down the story of him being the next great England rugby star. Some people in the English media would like him to occupy this role, but my task is to make sure Marcus doesn’t believe in this story, because it’s being written by other people. I want him to believe in his own story. I want him to write his own story.

Jones has been keeping tabs on Smith’s progress since the his school rugby career at Brighton College

When the first lockdown hit in 2020, I called him so we could have a proper conversation. I’ve had my eye on him for a while because I think he’s got real potential. But I was not sure whether Marcus had the desire to be the best he can be. I wondered if he might be happy being a nice Harlequins player, talking about England in glowing terms, without really testing the limits of his ability or character.

I had thought this for over a year when I rang him up in April 2020. We had a reasonably blunt conversation about the state of his game. I suggested that he needed to come up with his own identity. I wanted him to outline that identity as a player on a piece of paper for me. He did that and sent it over to me. We’ve been continuing that conversation ever since. He had identified the strengths he had first shown as a schoolboy. How could he utilise those strengths again at elite level? What is his role in the team? What did he need to do, especially as a number 10, to develop? Those were the three areas we tried to explore. I asked him to fill in those answers and I gave him a little feedback.

Marcus Smith’s impact at Harlequins meant he was quickly being spoken about as a future England player

Marcus is probably only going to be at his best in his late twenties. So we need to help him along this emotional journey and remind him about the journeys taken by some other great number 10s. When was Dan Carter at his best? At his last World Cup in 2015. Is Beauden Barrett a fully mature 10? No. He is a great player, but the best is still to come for him. Number 10s are like quarterbacks. You’ve got to allow them to fail. You’ve got to give them time to mature. The good ones come through. They repay you. They might have two or three years at their very best. But it is a demanding position.

When I selected Marcus for his England debut against the USA in the summer I had been impressed by the way he had improved since I challenged him a year earlier to become the best he could be. Marcus had made real progress and we felt he was in a very good place when he left us for the Lions. But so much will depend on him keeping his feet on the ground. He’s going to be a pin-up boy because that suits the English media mentality. They like the fact he’s slightly different and seen as an X factor type of player. It’s easy to be seduced, but Marcus is from a good family and he’s got a good manner. He just needs to keep working to get the best out of himself.

Jones on Owen Farrell

Teaching soft skills is part of his captaincy practice

The onus of responsibility should not just centre on the captain, but I understand why the role is a source of fascination. Owen Farrell is developing well as a leader.

He’s quite an aggressive leader, and captains of this type can find it difficult to adjust to the nuances of the role. They have to develop their softer skills – to empathise with their teammates and bring them together into a cohesive unit and, also, to manage the referee.

We call them ‘soft skills’ but they’re actually bloody hard. Clarity of thinking, communication, composure, diplomacy, empathy, sensitivity and understanding others are sophisticated and often elusive skills. It’s easy to tell your captain to go out and have tough conversations with his teammates, while showing plenty of empathy, but you need to understand the complexity of his task.

We also only have the players for short periods, so it is tricky to maintain continuity. But that does not mean it is impossible to develop the soft skills a great captain needs. We try to give Owen the right advice. Will Carling and Steve Borthwick, as former captains of England, understand the pressures of the role more than most. They have been of real value, and Will is now Owen’s main point of contact. We’ve helped Owen gain access to Cameron Smith, who is one of the great captains and rugby league players in Australia. Owen, with his rugby league background, understands the magnitude of everything Cameron has done as a leader, and so they shared some useful conversations.

Neil Craig, our head of high performance and an expert in communication and leadership, and I also work closely with Owen, and he has people away from the England camp who he trusts and talks to all the time as well. But Neil made a really good point when he said that, as a support group, we’ve made the mistake of having too many people, too many ideas and too many conversations with Owen. He’s got enough information to digest now.

Midway through the 2021 Six Nations Neil reminded Owen that he has to lead himself before anyone else and to concentrate on the advice that made most sense to him. He needed to stay true to how he wanted to lead England – and remember that the captain’s first job is always to be the best player possible.

He said that Owen should talk to just one or two people he really trusts about leadership. If anyone else wanted to share their thoughts about captaincy he should tell them to back off in a respectful manner. He now just needs to practise being a leader as much as he can and stick to his core principles.

Farrell was expected to be captain for the duration of the autumn internationals but his injury meant Courtney Lawes stepped up for two of the Tests

Farrell was expected to be captain for the duration of the autumn internationals but his injury meant Courtney Lawes stepped up for two of the Tests

We can assist Owen most by developing his lieutenants into better leaders and by using smarter strategies so that, in training, he can practise being a captain under pressure. If training games are calm and perfect rather than full of pressure and chaos, how is Owen going to get better in dealing with difficult situations, whether they involve teammates’ intense emotions or responding to a bad refereeing decision?

Sometimes we design training so that there are fewer players on a particular team being led by Owen. The pressure builds on that team and then we might also make sure that a number of decisions go against him. This allows him to work on his mindset. It obviously can’t be the same as playing in front of 80,000 people, while millions watch on TV, but it allows a debrief as we see how he has done in adverse circumstances. We’ll ask some simple questions. How do you think you handled it? How did you prepare? What do you think you did really well? What didn’t you like? It’s a continuing process and we will constantly review the role of captain and of the leadership group.

Jones on Maro Itoje

He’s having acting lessons but he won’t be England captain

Jones believes it was the correct decision not to appoint Maro Itoje as captain of the Lions earlier this year


When Maro Itoje burst onto the scene you could have come from Mars and still been able to tell that he was going to be a special player. You didn’t need any deep rugby knowledge or foresight to predict an outstanding career for him if he stayed on track.

But these are also the standout players that you have to manage carefully at the outset. He has developed really well since I gave him his debut as a substitute against Italy in 2016. Maro has a good head on his shoulders, and he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself. I think the way we dealt with him early on in his international career helped a little in establishing those good habits. We want these extraordinary players to rise slowly so they end up playing a huge amount of Test matches.

Maro himself needed, more than anyone else, to understand the value of patience. He needed to trust us. I think we helped him do that because he quickly came to understand that we care for him. He’s an important player for us but he’s also got a responsibility to his family and himself. It is vital that he feels he can fulfil all his personal goals while realising that the best way to do this is by applying himself to the cause of the team. If the team are flying, so will Maro Itoje.

There were lots of calls for him to be named as captain of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021. Alun Wyn Jones rightly got the job instead. That seemed sensible to me. I might be wrong, but I am not sure Maro is a future England captain. He is going to be one of the great players, but Maro is very inward looking.

We’ve sent Maro to acting classes, which is having a beneficial effect. He speaks more influentially now, and I am hopeful he can develop more communication and leadership skills. Acting brings Maro out of himself. We don’t want to quench his inner drive, but we will have made huge progress if we can tap into it in different ways so that it transmits to his teammates. The acting classes are a practical step to helping Maro and others share that internal fire and magic which makes them special. We’re always looking to see if we can develop these traits and find the right mix of leaders.

Jones on Kyle Sinkler and Ellis Genge

Our wild boys have proved the doubters wrong

I have always backed Kyle Sinckler from the moment I chose him and Ellis Genge for England’s tour of Australia in 2016. The two wild young prop-forwards, were unheralded then, and neither of them had ‘the face’ nor ‘the look’ of a successful rugby player.

They come from the other side of the tracks and, as kids, were outside the English rugby system.

Sincks played the game with more emotion than most players. This makes him vulnerable but it’s part of his allure. We thought he offered something different, even though he was always going to be a bit difficult to harness.

I picked Genge and Sinckler when England were on a high. We had just come through my first Six Nations when we won the Grand Slam. But I felt we needed to add an edge to the team as we headed to Australia. I wanted more aggression in the pack. Genge and Sinckler had that raw aggression from the wrong side of town. So they came on tour and were a handful at training.

Both of them wanted to prove how rough and tough they were and they caused some grievance amongst the established players. Some of their physical impact was inappropriate for a training session. But it’s all part of the learning process of international rugby. They adapted, and by the end of the tour these two wild young bulls had both grown and become part of the squad. They have gone on and represented their country with honour and distinction. But they are always going to have their problems.

In Genge, left, and Sinckler, right, Jones recognised the potential to shake up the England front row

There were some serious doubts about Sinckler within the England coaching fraternity. I listened to one voice in particular for I had great respect for his views; he was unsure of Sinckler. His initial perceptions of Kyle were of a self-centred, immature, volatile, emotional and angry young man. He acknowledged Kyle’s obvious talent and liked him as a kid. But he argued forcefully that Kyle could blight the team with his ill-discipline. Could we really trust Sinckler in the heat of battle?

I listened because there was plenty of validity to the view. But my feel for the game, and for individual people, allied to concrete data around his performances, told me to persevere with Sinckler. We could have a special character if, somehow, we could control his emotion.

Jones on Manu Tuilagi

He’s gone from disruptor to dynamo

We are always a much better and happier squad when we’ve got Manu Tuilagi in camp and on the field. The players love him because he’s a bright, bubbly, loving guy. He’s very unassuming but on the field he’s so powerful. And in camp he’s the king of the coffee breaks and the chessboard. He beats everyone who takes him on, but the players gravitate towards him. A few years ago, when he was young and silly, he was apparently a disruptive presence. But those days are long gone. Getting married and having a baby teaches you lessons in responsibility and cohesion, and that is why Manu became the kind of player we love having around the place.

Jones on Danny Cipriani

He lost focus and there was no changing him

Jones, like many other coaches, never managed to coax the best out of Cipriani

Credit: 2018 Getty Images/David Rogers

I feel regret when I see individuals fail to utilise their own huge talent. Danny Cipriani is the obvious example for me. I remember seeing him as a 22-year-old. He was unbelievable. He was gifted, fast, inventive and endlessly creative. But he lost focus. When I worked later with him it was too late to get him back on track. In 2018 he had already turned 30. The pattern had been set and there was no changing him.

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