Marcus Smith’s inclusion in the England squad at the expense of George Ford may well herald a new and exciting generation of English rugby.
The landscape admittedly looked positive, albeit bland, at the end of 2020 after a clean sweep of both the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup.
Having tasted one defeat from nine Tests, it ensured Eddie Jones’ men remained second in the world rankings.
Yet the clamor for more thrills soon turned from a low buzz to a dull roar when Jones reinforced his decision to adopt a more kick-heavy approach for the 2021 Championship.
Defeats to Scotland, Wales and Ireland ensured the Red Rose finished fifth in the table to equal their worst-ever performance at the famous tournament.
Prior to the tournament, Jones talked about playing ‘effective rugby’, but the Aussie is seemingly moving away from that with a bold new-look squad for the Autumn Internationals with the introduction of Smith at the expense of trusted statesman Ford.
Tonga, Australia and then South Africa await the Red Rose at Twickenham this winter and Jones can take heart from the resurgence of his home nation.
The Wallabies looked a completely different beast during the Rugby Championship this summer thanks to the return of the physically dominant and decisive Samu Kerevi at inside centre.
Kerevi’s brute force and pace provided the perfect foil for the mercurial Quade Cooper at 10 as the pair dovetailed perfectly to bemuse and brutalize opponents in equal measure.
Smith enjoys an equally fruitful partnership with Andre Esterhuizen at Harlequins, with the 6ft 3ins, 18st Springbok forming a little and large duo he describes as ‘a crucial match’.
Even at the tender age of 22, Smith could well be the catalyst for a new and exciting era of English rugby alongside two of the more established members of previous Jones’ squads.
Owen Farrell will remain as captain once again, yet the return to the fold for Manu Tuilagi represents Smith with an opportunity to replicate his explosive club form on the international stage.
It can be argued no back has had a more central impact for Jones than Tuilagi, with crucial performances against Ireland in Dublin and against New Zealand in Japan underlining his importance in 2019.
The Sale Sharks center was regularly deployed at 12 during that period, regularly crashing over the gainline, and Smith can thrive alongside the veteran with his ability to inject pace and excitement into a new-look England side.
With the addition of Alex Dombrandt to the squad, England can have a spine capable of dominating games and doing so in style. The Quins No.8 made his way into the squad at the expense of Billy Vunipola and has an almost symbiotic understanding with Smith.
The composure and class of the fly-half, coupled with the power and technique in the tight of the hulking forward, manes they can trouble even the most turgid defence.
A triumvirate of Smith, Dombrandt and Tuilagi would allow the youngster to play his typically silky and subtle game with the power and pace around him to pull teams apart.
So what of Captain Farrell?
Axed from the England team before the 2019 World Cup, former skipper Dylan Hartley knows all too well about the pain of losing your place as captain at the least opportune moment.
Yet the former hooker believes Tuilagi could revert to his typical position at outside center to afford the Saracens playmaker a space at 12 to dovetail with Smith.
“I don’t think Owen will be overlooked, and I know from experience that what happens off the field in a leadership role is integral to how that team performs and prepares,” Hartley told The Times. “Owen’s got the ability to play front-foot, attacking rugby.
“I think back to 2016 when Eddie first came and everything was: be at them, in their face, attack, attack, attack. That was the mindset of our team. And that’s why we just went for it. Owen can play that game.”
Smith showed in brief cameos for England and the Lions this summer that he can play at the highest level and deal with pressure.
However Jones decides to utilize the youngster, a new and exciting era of rugby awaits England.