Marcus Smith and Johnny Sexton.
# 10s
England's Smith set for big test opposite 'outstanding operator' Sexton
Eddie Jones said the Leinster man is “a durable guy.”

THE EXPERIENCED MASTER and the young maestro. Johnny Sexton and Marcus Smith.

There’s a 13-year age gap between the Ireland and England out-halves and they are different players with quite different strengths. But they do share some traits.

They both want to be the best in the world. Smith is a young man at 23 and still a relative newcomer to Test rugby with just eight caps to his name, but he has sights set on being the best, winning trophies, and earning awards like the World Rugby player of the year gong that Sexton picked up in 2018.

Smith first played for the senior England team against the Barbarians in a non-capped game back in 2019 but had to wait until last summer for his full debut.

That first England cap came off the back of two brilliant seasons with Harlequins, the second of them a Premiership-winning campaign in which Smith’s form was spectacular.

Having started in wins over the US and Canada last summer, Smith then came off the bench in the November Test success against Tonga before starting at number 10 in victories versus Australia and the Springboks.

He tasted defeat in senior Test rugby for the first time in England’s opening clash of this Six Nations against Scotland, before starring in their wins over Italy and Wales. 

With four tries across those first eight caps, as well as some big kicks off the tee, Smith’s return for England has been good so far. 

Ireland will obviously be looking to put him under intense pressure but Smith can thrive when defences get disconnected in their desire to make dominant tackles. He excels at exposing dog-legs in the defence, goose-stepping around and beyond tacklers, and he is comfortable offliading the ball once in behind.

englands-marcus-smith Billy Stickland / INPHO Smith has a brilliant goose step. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The eye-catching stuff tends to, well, catch a lot of eyes.

“He’s just got to run out there now and he gets man of the match,” says England boss Eddie Jones with a smile.

But Smith is not just about attacking flair and possesses a relatively mature kicking game, while he has been working hard on the defensive side of his skillset too.

“He’s coming on really well,” says Jones. “He’s learning as a young and relatively small 10 to make the right tackle selection.

“These young 10s always get tested out – Dan Carter, Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett, Stephen Larkham – they all got tested, and then find a way to become a good defender, and Marcus will do that.”

Ireland captain Sexton’s appetite for success remains patently undiminished at the age of 36. He remains the key player for Ireland, even if a recent hamstring twinge was another reminder that he is not unbreakable.

The Leinster man made his return against Italy two weekends ago, playing 27 impressive minutes off the bench, and looks likely to be back in the starting XV for Saturday’s clash with the English.

Sexton is the conductor of Ireland’s attack. While other backs have increasingly been stepping up as first receivers, taking distribution pressure off Sexton or allowing him to be a threat one or two passes wider, he is still the best decision-maker and decision-communicator of the lot, by some distance.

He runs square at the line to fix defenders, his body language is difficult to read, he picks the right pass more often than not, and he kicks the ball well too. He’s also still one of the best defensive out-halves around.

Jones says it’s no surprise to see Sexton still in Ireland’s number 10 shirt given how well he is managed and how well the system is set up for him to succeed.

“He’s an outstanding operator,” says Jones. “He’s obviously got a thirst for playing rugby and he’s got the advantage of being looked after by his province.

johnny-sexton Billy Stickland / INPHO Sexton remains a key figure for Ireland. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“If he was playing anywhere else in the world it would probably be a bit more difficult but because they’ve got the Leinster-Ireland connection, he’s allowed to have the optimal prep for international rugby and he’s a durable guy.

“How many times have we seen it look like he’s got a terrible injury and he comes back and plays well.

“It’s testament to his desire and to the way that Ireland have set up their rugby.”

The tale of two 10s promises to be a fascinating one this weekend in London.

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