'There were glimpses again': Gatland opens up on England's young star
SPOTLIGHT: Former British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland has delivered his latest verdict on the development of Marcus Smith, a crucial try-scorer last Saturday for England in their Test series-clinching win over Australia in Sydney.
It was August last year when the New Zealander described the 23-year-old as a future superstar in the game after he had worked with him on the tour to South Africa.
It was the rookie Smith – not the seasoned Johnny Sexton – that Gatland turned to when he needed a mid-tour Lions call-up at flyhalf to provide cover for the injured Finn Russell, and the coach gave the youngster a ringing endorsement when the trip concluded.
“Marcus Smith is going to be a superstar in the game,” enthused Gatland at the time about the then England Test level newcomer.
“He is incredibly talented. If he was probably at any other of the four home nations he would definitely have been playing internationals by now and hopefully he gets that opportunity going forward because he has definitely got an incredible amount of talent.
Eleven months later, Gatland has now updated that assessment of Smith in the wake of last weekend’s series win by England. Writing in his latest UK Telegraph column, the three-tour Lions head coach explained: “I was at a dinner on Friday night when I was asked what I thought of the Harlequins player.
“I surprised the questioner, who it turns out is not a fan, by saying he has the ability to become a world-class flyhalf. There were glimpses again of his potential in England’s third Test victory, and I liked the way he has been playing flatter and being more involved at first receiver.
“What Marcus needs now, more than anything, is a run of Test matches to build his confidence and experience. When a player first breaks onto the international stage, particularly in a decision-making position, Test matches are like watching a movie in fast forward. The images in front of the player flash by in contrast to the speed of the game he is used to at club or provincial level.
“Yet with every Test match they play, gradually the pictures become slower and the clarity grows. It is something that cannot be coached. All that Marcus needs now is games. What impressed me on Saturday is that Australia tried to run down his channel and he stood up and was counted.
“By the time of the World Cup, he could be seeing the game in slow motion, and without wanting to disappoint my dinner guest, that is a frightening prospect for England’s opponents.”
Gatland, the former long-serving Wales boss, also commented on the Test series victory that Ireland – another of his old teams – enjoyed over the All Blacks.
“Ireland’s historic triumph is a game-changer,” he reckoned. “No Irish side has yet to make it beyond the quarterfinals of a World Cup, but Andy Farrell’s side look equipped to be considered as genuine contenders now to win it.
“The size of the achievement of winning a series in New Zealand cannot be underestimated, even if the All Blacks may have lost their way a little over the last year, and the biggest impact will be a psychological one.
“World Cups have often tested the mental strength of the Celtic nations… yet what I saw from Farrell’s side on Saturday was a complete contrast. Ireland looked brilliantly coached, with a game plan that exploited the All Blacks’ weaknesses which was backed up by ferocious commitment and mental robustness.
“Even in their current state, New Zealand remain a team that can score 15 or 20 points from nowhere, and if they build a lead are phenomenally difficult to catch. Ireland knew that and once again started stronger and again outscored them in the first quarter and then had the wherewithal, confidence, and game management to cope with the backlash just after half-time and go again.
“Ireland squeezed them and it was remarkable to witness them finishing the game comfortably in control. They now have a year to come to terms with the expectation but the biggest challenge now is to ensure there is a match-ready back-up to Johnny Sexton. He had an outstanding series but will be 38 by the time of the World Cup.
“The likes of Joey Carbery must now be given the chance to start this autumn [November]. It will take a tough conversation with Johnny, who wants to play in every game, but Ireland cannot afford a repeat of 2019 when his unavailability against Japan was critical to their pool defeat.”
By Liam Heagney, @RugbyPass
Source: The Telegraph