DANNY CIPRIANI: Marcus Smith’s bag of tricks can help him pass the ultimate test against South Africa… If England’s No 10 plays with freedom he can exploit space in behind and stamp his authority
- Marcus Smith has a perfect chance to step up against South Africa on Saturday
- In Owen Farrell’s absence, the Harlequins star can run the show at Twickenham
- He won’t be fazed by the Springboks’ physicality and can find space in behind
- I want to see Smith given freedom and play high tempo like he does at club level
Lining up against South Africa is the ultimate challenge for a fly-half. Marcus Smith will have learned a lot from sitting on the sidelines during last summer’s Lions tour.
He will know how they operate and now is the perfect chance for him to step out at Twickenham and run the show.
The Springboks have the most aggressive rush defence in the world. Players like Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen are huge men who pride themselves on their physicality.
Marcus Smith has a bag full of tricks that could help him run the show against South Africa
They are really down-to-earth, religious guys but on the pitch they are different animals. You know they will try to knock the wind out of you, but as a No 10 that presents opportunities.
Smith won’t be fazed or intimidated by the sight of a big defender flying at him. His footwork can get him out of a lot of trouble. He’s got the full bag of tricks.
If anything, you welcome those players flying out of the line because it leaves space somewhere else on the field.
If you’ve got the pass away and then you’re hit late, you can jump back up feeling pretty chuffed about it. You might give the tackler a pat on the head but you don’t dwell on it because you’ve got to dust yourself off and get into the next play.
If I put myself in Smith’s shoes, I would have spent the early stages of this week looking at South Africa’s defensive unit. It’s not about individuals.
The Springboks are aggressive but Smith won’t be fazed by a big defender flying in at him
England have a bespoke app on the iPads, full of opposition footage, and the playmakers will study hours of video clips to work out how to get over, around or through the defence.
South Africa want to put pressure on guys like Smith to stop them from playing the ball into the space. They rush up quickly, with the wingers pushing up really high to get into your eye-line. The sight of a defender rushing up into your passing channel can spook you and make you think twice.
A split-second makes a huge difference. If you worry about your pass being intercepted by one of these onrushing wingers, then it takes away your confidence and stops you from throwing the pass. Instead, you turn back inside where you’re hit by a big bruiser. That’s the goal of a blitz defence.
As a No 10, you are constantly looking at the opportunities that present themselves. If their wingers are pressing really high, you know there’s going to be loads of space in behind them. If you can get the ball into that pocket of space then you know there’s going to be a scoring opportunity.
During the third Lions Test, Finn Russell showed how you can exploit that space with smart kicking and passing.
Smith has the skills to exploit space against South Africa and should play at a high tempo
If the ball is quick and the passes are sharp, you can cut right through the heart of it. Smith has all the skills to unpick it — and so does Henry Slade if he’s picked in the centres. You want to see Smith and Slade swapping places as first and second receiver to keep the defence guessing.
You need your forward pack to put in the hard yards and dent the blitz defence to leave it disconnected. Keep your second receiver hovering behind a pod of forwards, and when the defence is scrambled then you make your big play off the back of quick ball.
Watching the Premiership, I’ve seen Slade play over the top of a blitz defence many a time. He can throw big 30-yard passes, off both hands, looping over the top of defenders. You want Manu Tuilagi running hard lines but you want your wingers holding their width to get on the end of those passes.
Hopefully Eddie Jones starts Adam Radwan and Jonny May because those guys offer pure speed out wide. I want to see high tempo. Quick lineouts and quick taps from Ben Youngs.
South Africa prefer to go from set piece to set piece, slowly draining your energy, so the faster England play the better. If you play quickly and attack before their defence has had time to set then you can hurt them.
Smith plays a high-tempo game for Harlequins all the time, so hopefully we see some of that club form. With Tuilagi and Slade in the back line, it’s quite a similar dynamic to what he’s used with Andre Esterhuizen at the Stoop.
Give Smith free rein and let him play the way he wants to play. With Owen Farrell missing through injury, Smith can really stamp down his authority.
If you’re prepared to run from deep and kick on the front foot then you can cause problems. If everyone is alive to it and on the same page, you can get lots of pay out of it and win the game.
You want to see Smith and Henry Slade swapping places to keep the defence guessing
Marcus needs to be pragmatic and think about his kicking game – he must leave his mark
As a No 10, you’re picking up cues all over the pitch. If it’s medium to slow ball, there will be a lot of territorial kicking. Freddie Steward is great in the air so you want to put up contestable kicks for him to win back and gain territory.
That’s one of your weapons. You’ll know who your best front-foot ball-carriers are so, as a No 10, you need to be aware of where they are.
Marcus will essentially be wearing two hats. For large parts of the game he’s got to be pragmatic, thinking about his kicking game and make smart decisions off the back of slow ball.
When I think back to my last Test against the Springboks, we spent a lot of time playing an aerial game and trying to combat them in the air. We got some pay out of it but when the opportunity came around to make a play, the ball was kicked through to May and he scored to win the game.
You’ll get a couple of moments within the game to leave your mark. When they come, you’ve got to be ready for it.
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