Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has backed James O’Connor to bounce back from a sub-par performance in the loss to Scotland when he goes up against England golden boy Marcus Smith on Sunday.
O’Connor has been named to start at No.10 for the second week running despite criticism of his positioning in the 15-13 loss to the Scots.
Former England international Ugo Monye, speaking on the BBC, was among those who felt O’Connor played too deep.
“For as good as that Australian backline are individually, James O’Connor at 10, what was he doing?” Monye said on the Rugby Union Weekly podcast.
“He was so deep, nothing to the line, and everything I’ve appreciated about O’Connor is his ability to go to the line.
“I was so disappointed in that inability. If James O’Connor plays that deep to the line this weekend that England defence will swallow it up.”
On Thursday Rennie acknowledged O’Connor had had a difficult game last week, in his first start of the season.
“I think James was probably mixed last week and we’ve all had a discussion around it,” Rennie said.
“It’s more in connection, making sure we’re connected to the forwards up front, the quality of the communication coming from outside.
“All of our shot-callers have sat down, gone right through the game, looked at all our options, and so I think we’ll be better for it.
“James has certainly trained well and he’s experienced and he’s smart. So he’ll make the adjustments and we expect a high-quality performance from him on Saturday.”
O’Connor will relish the battle with 22-year-old Smith, who will be playing a fourth Test to O’Connor’s 60th.
“He’s a genuine threat, he’s certainly very quick and highly skilled and an exciting young player so you’d expect to see him play a lot of footy for England over the next few years,” said Rennie.
Smith has been attracting rave reviews from an early age and there was a clamour to give him a start against Tonga last week, only for a minor leg injury to restrict him to a role off the bench.
When he arrived he was explosive and got the crowd right behind him. O’Connor knows the story well. At 17, he becaame the youngest ever Super Rugby debutant and a year later – four years younger than Smith is now – he ran on for the Wallabies.
Earlier in the week Jones warned Smith about distractions. He used, controversially, the example of British tennis prodigy Emma Raducanu, but perhaps O’Connor, a well-documented victim of ‘distractions’, would have been a more relevant and accurate barometer.
Regardless, Jones is aware of how brutal a fall it can be should ego take control, but he likes what he sees in the Harlequins playmaker and has made a couple of accommodations for him.
“Marcus knows he has to build his game, but I have been really impressed with him since I started working with him on a daily basis since the summer,” said Jones.
“He is progressing in a nice way, but this is his biggest Test, he hasn’t played a tier one country yet.”
Jones has lined Smith up alongside veteran captain Owen Farrell – there were many judges, including World Cup-winning coach, Clive Woodward who felt it was one or the other – and put Manu Tuilagi on the wing for the first time in seven years.
Rennie expects Tuilagi to come into the midfield in defence with Smith pushed out wide, to give England more defensive stability.
While Smith never shirks a tackle, his body is not yet well enough developed to handle some of the game’s bigger centres and ball-carrying forwards.
Indeed Harlequins have often moved him further along the backline from set-pieces to match him against a smaller winger, or centre.
But it’s in attack where Smith will shine.
“England’s outside backs are going to love playing outside him,” Woodward said this week.
“They will be up on their toes and fighting to get pole position on his shoulder because if you are on Smith’s shoulder you are going to get scoring passes galore.”
Jones insists Smith’s supporters should temper their expectations.
“We’re playing against the side that’s beaten the world champions twice,” he said. ” It’s a huge step but is he capable of doing it? Of course he is. He’ll rise to the challenge and handle it well but it is a big step for him.”