Eddie Jones says he saved Marcus Smith from wasting his talent and argues Maro Itoje won’t be a future England captain
Eddie Jones insists Maro Itoje is unlikely to be England captain under his leadership, whilst claiming he saved Marcus Smith from wasting his potential.
The Australian is currently revelling in the success of an extremely successful Autumn Nations Series, where England won all three games and beat both Australia and South Africa at Twickenham.
With Smith at 10 and the trusted stalwart Itoje dominating in defence, England look like an extremely settled side as they prepare for the World Cup in 2023 – yet with still so much room for growth.
Owen Farrell may well have missed the win against the Springboks due to an injury, with Jones choosing to utilise Courtney Lawes in an unfamiliar leadership role.
The decision not to instead choose Saracens lock Itoje, who was touted for the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions this summer, confused some and the Head Coach has since clarified this decision.
Jones said in his new book, ‘Extracts from Leadership: Lessons from my life in rugby’ as transcribed by The Times: “When Maro Itoje burst onto the scene you could have come from Mars and still been able to tell that he was going to be a special player. You didn’t need any deep rugby knowledge or foresight to predict an outstanding career for him if he stayed on track.
“But these are also the standout players that you have to manage carefully at the outset. He has developed really well since I gave him his debut as a substitute against Italy in 2016. Maro has a good head on his shoulders, and he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself. I think the way we dealt with him early on in his international career helped a little in establishing those good habits. We want these extraordinary players to rise slowly so they end up playing a huge amount of Test matches.
“Maro himself needed, more than anyone else, to understand the value of patience. He needed to trust us. I think we helped him do that because he quickly came to understand that we care for him. He’s an important player for us but he’s also got a responsibility to his family and himself. It is vital that he feels he can fulfil all his personal goals while realising that the best way to do this is by applying himself to the cause of the team. If the team are flying, so will Maro Itoje.
“There were lots of calls for him to be named as captain of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021. Alun Wyn Jones rightly got the job instead. That seemed sensible to me. I might be wrong, but I am not sure Maro is a future England captain. He is going to be one of the great players, but Maro is very inward looking.”
Although it may have taken longer than some expected, Itoje was selected alongside the irrepressible Marcus Smith of Harlequins. Yet despite his undoubted and superstar potential, Jones admitted he had to coax that out of the 22-year-old.
“I actually saw him play as a schoolboy,” Jones added. “At the 2015 World Cup, when I was coaching Japan in England, I went to watch him play in a game at Brighton College because everyone said he was going to be the next best thing. I went out of curiosity, as a coach, and not because I had any involvement with England then. I was impressed as he definitely had a great skill set.
“But, somewhere down the line, he had lost that. I don’t have to tear down the story of him being the next great England rugby star. Some people in the English media would like him to occupy this role, but my task is to make sure Marcus doesn’t believe in this story, because it’s being written by other people. I want him to believe in his own story. I want him to write his own story.When the first lockdown hit in 2020, I called him so we could have a proper conversation. I’ve had my eye on him for a while because I think he’s got real potential. But I was not sure whether Marcus had the desire to be the best he can be. I wondered if he might be happy being a nice Harlequins player, talking about England in glowing terms, without really testing the limits of his ability or character.
“I had thought this for over a year when I rang him up in April 2020. We had a reasonably blunt conversation about the state of his game. I suggested that he needed to come up with his own identity. I wanted him to outline that identity as a player on a piece of paper for me. He did that and sent it over to me.
“We’ve been continuing that conversation ever since. He had identified the strengths he had first shown as a schoolboy. How could he utilise those strengths again at elite level? What is his role in the team? What did he need to do, especially as a number 10, to develop? Those were the three areas we tried to explore. I asked him to fill in those answers and I gave him a little feedback.
“Marcus is probably only going to be at his best in his late twenties. So we need to help him along this emotional journey and remind him about the journeys taken by some other great number 10s. When was Dan Carter at his best? At his last World Cup in 2015. Is Beauden Barrett a fully mature 10? No. He is a great player, but the best is still to come for him. Number 10s are like quarterbacks. You’ve got to allow them to fail. You’ve got to give them time to mature.”