Andre Esterhuizen, the Springbok centre, is urging England not to put Marcus Smith “in a box” if they want to ensure the outside half can deliver his unique skills in the Six Nations championship.
Smith signalled his return from an ankle injury with a Man of the Match performance which eclipsed Finn Russell, the Scotland No10, but could not stop Harlequins from suffering a 30-29 defeat against Racing 92 in Paris. Now, Smith will face the physical threat posed by the Sharks from Durban at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday in a match they must win to have any chance of making the Heineken Champions Cup knock out stages.
With Steve Borthwick having replaced Eddie Jones as England head coach, what role Smith will be given in the Six Nations remains to be seen. Borthwick’s decision to bring Nick Evans, the Harlequins attack coach on board, will ensure the outside half’s case will be given significant support in the selection meetings where the role of Owen Farrell, the captain, in the championship will be key.
Esterhuizen said: “It is going to be good for Marcus to have Nick with him at England and lot of people know he is player who must not be put into a box. He must have free rein to do what he sees, what he likes and that is when he is at his best. If you box him in he is going to play conservative and you are not going to see the best of him.
“Everyone knows the calibre of player Marcus is and the influence on those around him. He lifts the team to another level and everyone feeds off his energy and he knows how to make magic – something out of nothing. He is a great player and a great asset to have and we always miss him when he isn’t playing.
“He organises the forwards so well and sees space so much better than I would and has the speed and skill to execute it and a massive positive to have him. When our guys get picked for England it is a massive achievement and we always celebrate stuff like that and if we can help players evolve and get better.”
Esterhuizen is up against fellow Springbok mid-fielders Lukhanyo Am and Rohan Janse van Rensburg and an impressive performance will enhance his own bid to be included in the Rugby World Cup squad in France later this year. The defeat against Racing 92 showed flashes of Harlequins attacking threat and Esterhuizen, who has dismissed suggestions he could leave the club, believes there are signs of the team being able to end a four game losing run.
He said: “It was a close call in in Paris and we have lost four in a row which we are getting frustrated about but we are getting a bit of our mojo back and it is a lot better with a few guys coming back after injury. I was just happy to see us start playing and throwing the ball around and it was easier in those ( indoor) conditions.
“There were bits of the old Harlequins but we are still not where we want to be and can be. There were signs of us moving back to it and I am very excited because we know we can improve a lot. This is almost a must win for us to go through to the play offs against my old team and so it is a bit personal and they have got one on us.
“There are a few familiar faces and nice to play against them and there is a bit of banter on the phones with them. The game sold out weeks ago and they are a very good team with the best set piece in the competition with a big physical pack and if we can meet that it will be a good game. We welcome the South African teams in the competition and it adds a bit of spice and makes the competition even harder which is nice and even more special to win this.
“Sharks signed a lot of big name individuals sand everyone was wondering if they were going to gel and they have surprised me and it will be a hard battle. South African teams are always up for it and will we. Rohan is a hard physical runner and making tackles and I know Lukhanyo is a magical player who can make something out of nothing. Hopefully I can climb in his head and talk him out of the game a bit.”