Smith turns Gatland's head with starring role for Lions as Springboks series looms

By Sports Desk July 17, 2021

Marcus Smith played himself into contention to start the first Test against South Africa after a debut for the British and Irish Lions that delighted Warren Gatland.

Coach Gatland also expressed satisfaction at seeing Alun Wyn Jones back in action during Saturday's 49-3 win over the Stormers, three weeks after the captain dislocated his shoulder against Japan.

There will be "robust debate" over the coming days, Gatland predicted, as he and his coaching team consider their options for the July 24 series opener against the Springboks.

"With Marcus Smith, the longer the game went on, the better he looked and more comfortable out there," Gatland said.

Smith was a late addition to the tourists' squad, summoned from England duty after winning his first caps for Eddie Jones' side, but the Harlequins fly-half brought youthful zest to the Lions in Cape Town.

His kicking was reliable too, Smith nailing the extras for each of the Lions' seven tries.

As for whether the 22-year-old should start against South Africa, Gatland said: "Those are conversations we haven't had. I thought he looked good out there, some lovely touches. He kicked for goal well and I thought he defended well.

"For a guy who's only had one training session I thought it was pretty good. He'll be part of the discussions, no doubt about that.

"A lot of people put their hand up tonight and there were some pleasing performances on Wednesday too."

Wednesday's game saw the Lions beaten 17-13 by a strong South Africa A team, and Gatland made wholesale changes for the Stormers clash, allowing him to have a good look at all his options.

The return of Jones, who arrived in South Africa only on Thursday, means he assumes the tour captaincy again. That responsibility was initially transferred to Conor Murray when it appeared Jones had no chance of being involved.

Murray was more than happy to hand over the leadership duty, Gatland said, with one caveat.

"Conor, he's the first to admit he was more than comfortable for Alun Wyn to come back," Gatland said. "He wasn't prepared to give up his bedroom suite though, because I think he got the captain's bedroom suite."

Jones had almost half an hour as a second-half replacement against the Stormers, and Gatland said Test rugby's most-capped player would benefit from getting back to action.

"I thought he put a few shots on and defended well, had a couple of touches," Gatland said in his post-game news conference.

"The big thing for him was to get through that period and then to see how he was afterwards.

"We'll have that discussion about whether there's a role for him, either as a starter or a bench player or not involved next week.

"If he is not involved, we'll look at who potentially leads the team."

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    The three-Test tour begins in Perth on July 2 and England head into it on the back of Sunday's 52-21 drubbing at the hands of the Barbarians on Sunday.

    Significant absentees include Alex Dombrandt, Manu Tuilagi, Sam Simmonds and Kyle Sinckler, leading Jones to recall Billy Vunipola, who was last capped in the 2021 Six Nations, and eight uncapped players have also been selected.

    While there are big names absent and uncapped players among the roster, Jones believes that the squad is more than capable of making a positive impression in the tour.

    "Though we have ten players unavailable due to injury, we have picked a very strong squad capable of winning the series," he told a news conference.

    "This squad is a real mix of young, talented players and some very experienced, senior players and we're looking forward to bringing the group together.

    "This tour will be a great experience for the group and a crucial part of the team's work towards the World Cup in 2023. We will continue to develop the base of the squad and how we want to play.

    "We've put a lot of work into preparing for the tour over the past few weeks but now the hard work really begins when we finally get the squad on the plane and to Australia."

    On the injuries that have plagued the side, he added: "It's no concern because I can't control it. We can only pick from the players we have available. And I think generally now in a four-year cycle the only time you get close to having 100 per cent of your is the World Cup, with that three-month lead up."

    Jones' next big decision is on who will captain the side in the absence of Owen Farrell, and he confirmed that call will be made once the squad arrives in Perth.

    "Well once we get into Perth we'll start preparing and we'll announce the captaincy in due course," he added.

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    Vunipola has not featured for England since last year's Six Nations, but comes into the squad after injuries to Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds.

    The 29-year-old suffered a head injury in Saracens' Premiership final loss to Leicester Tigers on Saturday but is fit to join up with an England side that were hammered 52-21 by the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday.

    Care also features, having not earned a cap since 2018, as England's most-capped international and fellow scrum-half Ben Youngs stays at home due to family reasons.

    Jones has included eight uncapped players in the 36-man squad.

    Fraser Dingwall, Tommy Freeman, Guy Porter, Patrick Schickerling, Jack van Poortvliet, Jack Walker, Henry Arundell and Will Joseph will hope for their first competitive caps Down Under.

    England have not played in Australia since 2016, when they won all three of the games. They also overcame the Wallabies in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and are on an eight-match winning streak against their old rivals.

    Jones' side ultimately went on to lose the final to South Africa, but they are turning their attention to next year's World Cup in France as they look for their first title since 2003.

    England will open the series against Australia in Perth on July 2, before games in Brisbane and Sydney.

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    Forwards: Ollie Chessum, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Curry, Charlie Ewels, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Joe Heyes, Jonny Hill, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam, Bevan Rodd, Patrick Schickerling, Will Stuart, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Jack Walker, Jack Willis.

    Backs: Henry Arundell, Danny Care, Joe Cokanasiga, Fraser Dingwall, Owen Farrell, Tommy Freeman, George Furbank, Will Joseph, Joe Marchant, Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Guy Porter, Harry Randall, Jack van Poortvliet, Marcus Smith, Freddie Steward.

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    La Rochelle lock Skelton was sent off in the 37th minute after connecting with the head of Patrick Schickerling but the invitational side nevertheless dominated on Sunday. 

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    Joe Cokanasiga, Jonny May and Marcus Smith scored for England but the latter missed all three conversions to cap off a sorry day.

    With several experienced players in the squad, the showing will concern Jones ahead of England's tour of Australia, with the scoreline representing his biggest defeat as the team's coach.

    However, he made it clear that the team utilised at Twickenham was not a true reflection of the squad he will select to take Down Under.

    "It was a different sort of game, it's not England, it's an England select team," Jones told BBC Sport.

    "We're disappointed we couldn't do more with our set-piece. We tried to get onto front foot but we didn't execute.

    "This is not the England side. This was a warm-up game. We don't like to concede 50 points. We don't want that score.

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    In an interview with Amazon Prime, Jones added: "Obviously we are disappointed with the result.

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