Eddie Jones needs to keep it simple and start Marcus Smith for England

It was the US Navy which first popularised the KISS principle in the 1960s. Regardless of the dilemma the advice was to Keep It Simple, Stupid because straightforward solutions are usually the most effective. Sixty years on, this feels like English rugby’s moment to pucker up. Marcus Smith simply must play at No 10 against Australia this week, full stop.

Not to select him would, frankly, be akin to an act of cultural vandalism. If something looks like a world-class fly-half, thinks like a world-class fly-half and shows glimpses of that rare ability off the bench, what does a half-decent coach do next? Regardless of Owen Farrell being officially cleared to rejoin the squad, Smith needs to start on Saturday for the good of both the team and his nation’s psyche.

Because the argument against selecting England’s young wizard is shrinking to the point of invisibility. It is a bit like JK Rowling writing a couple of worthy muggle-themed novels and not introducing Harry Potter until book three. Of course there is a slight difference between fantasy fiction and international rugby but, just occasionally, it is impossible to ignore the spectacularly obvious.

Why would you not want to unleash a fly-half who could just be the man who releases the attacking hand brake that has too often held England back? Why would you dissolve the centre pairing of Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi which, as some of us have said for years, is transparently the best available? And if that means Farrell, the squad’s captain, sitting on the bench is that not just a further sign of how positive and enlightened this brave “new England” could potentially be?

If one thing stood out during England’s 69-3 dismantling of Tonga on Saturday, aside from the blessed return of a full stadium, it was the sense of what could conceivably be just around the corner. Nothing against Farrell, always such a steely competitor, or the smart George Ford but when was the last time England, in an opening autumn Test at Twickenham, moved the ball with such refreshing intent and relish?

George Furbank, a very talented all-round sportsman, played his part. His catch-pass skills and ability to straighten the line were both praiseworthy. But there is a difference between a good player wearing 10 and a specialist fly-half adding another attacking dimension as Smith did after coming on for the final 28 minutes and helping England score 35 unanswered points. If the latter was suffering from the minor leg injury which limited his training during the week, it was not remotely obvious.

So, two years out from a World Cup, what other reason could there be not to back the wand-waving Harlequin, who turns 23 in February? The only one, seemingly, is Eddie Jones’s obsession with young players getting too far ahead of themselves. “The big thing for good young players is distractions,” the head coach stressed. “The distractions could be the exposure they get in the media, the praise they get, the criticism they get. There can be groups of agents who see this guy as the next big thing.”

To back up his argument, relevant or otherwise, he cited the young British tennis sensation, Emma Raducanu. “There’s a reason why the young girl who won the US Open hasn’t done so well afterwards,” he insisted, glossing over the fact Raducanu has not played in any majors since New York. “What have you seen her on – the front page of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar or whatever it is, wearing Christian Dior clothes.

“All that is a distraction around her. It might not be to that degree with Marcus, but potentially it could be. He is grounded, but they all start out grounded. No one starts with their feet off the ground … but there are a flood of distractions which can come in.”

Maybe. But the world has changed slightly since Eddie was a lad. Maybe it is about old timers being more willing to trust their own eyes. Today’s modern professionals are better conditioned, less impressionable, more dedicated, less callow. And if England do have their brightest young thing since Jonny Wilkinson, it is probably worth mentioning that Johnny made his debut as a teenager and was in his 55th Test when he kicked his World Cup‑winning drop-goal in Sydney in 2003.

Of course it does not always work out. The mind spools back to the first start of a crowd-pleasing English fly-half called Danny Cipriani against Ireland at Twickenham in 2008. He was dazzlingly brilliant but went on to start just four more Tests for his country through an uneasy combination of injury and selectorial wariness.

Admittedly there were occasions when he did not help himself but the enlightened man management he needed was an even bigger factor.

On the other hand, Johnny Sexton who did not make his Test debut until he was 24 but made his 100th appearance for Ireland in Saturday’s 60-5 win over Japan. Now 36, he is still going strong, his competitive instincts undimmed, a state of mind also likely to keep his kindred soul Farrell raging against the dying of the light.

The world’s current best fly-half, Richie Mo’unga, was another relatively late starter, playing his first Test for the All Blacks at 24. The 47-9 win against Italy on Saturday was only his 20th start.

But Handré Pollard, South Africa’s calm controller, was a debutant at 20 and Scotland’s Finn Russell, now a baton-whirling Lion after seven years of Test match maturation, was 21. In both cases they are benefitting now from the faith shown in them as promising youngsters.

So of course it is rough on the unlucky Farrell, who was the victim of a false positive test last Thursday and, as it turned out, placed into isolation unnecessarily. Of course he deserves serious respect after all these years. Of course he has plenty of rugby still in him. His England and Saracens teammates will love him forever. But this week there is no ducking the glaring, simple truth.

KISS. Smith must start.

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