Marcus Smith will take charge of England’s gameplan against South Africa on Saturday with his confidence boosted by an in-depth session with World Cup-winning fly-half Jonny Wilkinson.
Smith will take sole charge of England’s attack after Owen Farrell was ruled out of the contest against the world champions with an ankle injury sustained during the victory over Australia last Saturday.
And the 22 year-old, who will take over the kicking duties for England in Farrell’s absence, benefited from a technical session with Wilkinson at a training session at Pennyhill Park on Wednesday on what was his first visit to Eddie Jones’ camp this autumn.
Wilkinson, who also spent time with Saracens wing Max Malins, has previously worked with Farrell and George Ford on drop-in sessions during Jones’ tenure but it was the first time he has worked with Smith since the Harlequins fly-half won his first cap in July.
It is reflective of the age profile of Jones’ squad that some of the younger players were said to be star-stuck by Wilkinson’s appearance during training on Wednesday.
England will turn to one of their most experienced heads to deputise for Farrell as captain, with Courtney Lawes expected to lead for the second time after Farrell missed the opening victory against Tonga because of a false positive Covid-19 test.
Tom Curry, who will be retained at No 8 and is a member of a new four-man senior leadership team, said Lawes was an inspirational captain.
“I love Courtney. He’s got a lot of respect within the squad,” said Curry. “Whatever he says carries a lot of weight. I’m excited the whole time but he brings that element of being calm, relaxed and the voice of reason. I love listening to him. He’s very reasoned. I think he’s brilliant. He likes to lead by example and usually that is the best way so I have a lot of respect.”
England will also be handed a much-needed injection of experience with the return of Joe Marler to the squad. Marler tested positive for Covid-19 last week and, with Ellis Genge also testing positive, England’s loosehead resources were greatly depleted going into the Australia match, with rookie Bevan Rodd handed his debut.
Marler’s period of self-isolation does not end until Thursday evening but the Harlequins prop, and England’s most powerful scrummager, has been in constant touch with Jones and will be ready to take part in a training session on Friday.
With Jamie George also ruled out with a knee injury, England are expected to start with an inexperienced front row of Rodd and Newcastle hooker Jamie Blamire, but Marler’s return will be key in helping Jones’ side cope with the Springboks’ front-five ‘bomb squad’ from the bench.
“South Africa pride themselves on physicality, but at the same time there’s not loads to hit when the ball is in the air, is there?” said Curry. “It’s getting that balance right, making sure we’re clear on our gameplan and how we want to get it done.”
Jones will confirm his starting XV after a training session on Thursday morning.
A rejinked backline looks set to see Manu Tuilagi return to the midfield alongside Henry Slade, with Malins in strong contention for a start on the left wing to give England greater back-field cover in the face of the Springbok aerial threat.
Curry, who played in all three Tests for the Lions against the Springboks, said the lesson learned was not to play them at their own game of “a lot of kicks and slowing the game down”.
“You probably shoot yourselves in the foot if you get in that cycle with them, because that’s what they want, isn’t it? We have to make sure we are clear about what we want to do.”