TWICKENHAM, London — During a crazy game that ended with Northampton conceding 50 points at Twickenham for the second time this season, arguably the biggest cheer was reserved not for one of the 10 tries but for the appearance of Eddie Jones on the stadium’s giant screen.
The England coach returned the crowd’s warm reception with a sheepish gin, and there was plenty for Jones to be pleased with at HQ. But, as he exited into the chilly winter night, he would be forgiven if his thoughts were dominated by two players at opposite ends of the career spectrum.
Jones will meet with Dylan Hartley and Marcus Smith in Brighton on New Year’s Day as England begin their pre-Six Nations training camp.
For Smith, 18, following one of his most assured performances as a professional in which he kicked 15 points, produced two assists and had a hand in three further Harlequins tries, it is another chance to prove to his national coach that he deserves to have the star next to his name on the England squad list removed.
That denotes, as it does for Bath back row Zach Mercer, that the young fly-half remains an apprentice on the international stage and it is understandable that Jones is taking such a softly, softly approach.
Smith has made just 11 first-team appearances in his Harlequins career and the club are doing their best to keep the talented youngster out of the public eye. His elevation has been progressed significantly by the injuries suffered by Demetri Catrakilis since his arrival from Montpellier, and with the South African expected to return to action next month, the apprentice may soon find himself back on the bench.
Not that performances like he turned in at Twickenham will do anything to douse the rugby public’s expectation. “He is a fine rugby player and was pulling the strings,” Harlequins director of rugby John Kingston said. “He looked the player that he is which is a fine rugby player.
“We have to make sure we take it stage by stage. He has probably had more rugby than we would have thought was right with Demetri and Tim Swiel out.”
And far from talking up his player’s international prospects, Kingston cautioned Jones against picking Smith too soon as he suggested “you walk before you run”.
“They [England] have obviously got two top drawer fly-halves [Owen Farrell and George Ford]. Eddie’s decision to have him involved in the group that’s fine, that’s up to him — but he is a way off being someone to play international rugby.
“I am a great believer that you come into an international set-up when you are good enough to play 50 times for your country, not get one game and thrown back because it was not the right thing.
“Let’s just calm down and let him progress the way he is.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Hartley. Jones has repeatedly insisted that the hooker will remain his captain on the road to the 2019 Rugby World Cup but his position in the England team has come under increased scrutiny.
On Saturday Hartley missed five of his 11 attempted tackles as his side were well beaten. His performance prompted former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio, speaking in his role as a television pundit, to suggest that try-scoring replacement hooker Mikey Haywood had done more with one involvement than his teammate had in 59 minutes on the pitch.
Northampton coach Alan Dickens insisted it was unfair to single out one player following a disastrous performance from the visitors but the noise surrounding Hartley’s place in England’s front row is getting louder.
Jamie George’s continued form for Saracens means that it is not a debate that will disappear ahead of the Six Nations, either. Dickens admitted that his side lack confidence having lost 12 of their previous 13 matches, and Jones will hope that his captain can discover some during their few days together in Brighton next week.