Not so long ago there was a regular reminder from Eddie Jones and his players that England wanted to put smiles on people’s faces amid the hardship of the pandemic. It was clearly a well-intentioned message but the problem was the quality of England’s performances last autumn and most of this year’s Six Nations did anything but.
The match against USA on Sunday represents a clean slate, and there is optimism that such an obvious sense of ennui – as was the case the last time England faced second-tier opposition in the form of Georgia in November – will be avoided, largely because of what has occurred across the road. The newly crowned Premiership champions Harlequins have been playing with smiles and putting them on people’s faces – none more so than their fly-half, Marcus Smith, who is hoping to be named on Friday in Jones’s matchday squad.
Smith’s recent form demands attention, with his clubmate Joe Marchant seeing similarities between the 22-year-old and the All Blacks star Beauden Barrett. Marchant speaks from experience, having briefly crossed paths with Barrett during a sabbatical in Auckland last year, and it is telling that he highlights both players’ capacity to entertain.
“They definitely get bums off seats,” Marchant said. “You can definitely see the skill level when they get the ball in their hands, they have just got so much time on it. [Marcus] has been exceptional and I am really excited to see what he can do at international level.”
England could do with a player like that on Sunday because while only 10,000 supporters will be allowed inside Twickenham, Channel 4 offers free-to-air exposure. However there is every chance that by the time we reach 2pm on Sunday the average sports fan will have had their fill. The British & Irish Lions will have already played their first match in South Africa just before England face Ukraine at Euro 2020, while Wimbledon and the Tour de France will be in full swing. Suffice to say Jones’s side need something special to stand out from the crowd.
There is the creeping sense that with so many senior players absent – either away with the Lions or being rested – Jones may see fit to release the handbrake. Marchant has been joined by clubmates Smith, Alex Dombrandt and Jack Kenningham in the squad and while it remains to seen whether Jones will cash in on their form or stick with a side similar to that which was due to play Scotland A last Sunday, Harlequins’s recent triumph over Exeter provides an obvious blueprint.
“We’re here to play for England, so if there’s a way England play that’s different to how we play at our club then we’ll be on board with that,” Marchant said. “At the same time if there will be opportunities to move the ball, play to our strengths, we will obviously do that. It’s going well for us and we’ve got a lot of benefits from it. If it sets trends at international level, who knows? All competitions are so different, so you never know what’ll work. We’ve just tried to get that going, and it’s been successful.”
Marchant has found himself on the fringes of the England squad, winning five caps but just one start in the 2019 World Cup warmup win over Italy. His sabbatical with the Blues has added more strings to his bow and he would seem to be precisely the kind of player who can seize his opportunity this summer.
“Every game I’ve played I’ve been in and around the squad, I’ve never been the starter, week in and week out, which is obviously what I’d like to be,” he said. “So leading on obviously from a good season with Quins that’s obviously what I’m pushing towards. We’ve got two games this summer. Hopefully I get an opportunity to show what I can do.”