Marcus Smith is in the middle of the biggest year of his rugby life. It’s been hugely successful already and even bigger prizes await. It seems like nothing is going to stop the 22 year old fly half from cementing his position as one of the very best players in world rugby right now, and perhaps for years to come.
You’ll have heard of his youthful attacking flair, his no-look passes and his ability to sprain defenders’ ankles with his side step. But that’s only part of his game – and it’s the part that leads to far too many people lazily assuming he’s one of those inexperienced No.10s who is more focused on spinning out another attempted miss pass than on a well placed kick to the corner to allow his pack some respite and get them moving forwards.
But Marcus Smith is something different. Something better. Something more complete. And he’s ready to lose the L plates.
“Give him the keys to grandpa’s car, let him take a spin,” urged former England international Dylan Hartley in RugbyPass.
As well as having the pace and creativity to unlock defences and make space for others, he has the crucial skills to manoeuvre his country around the park.
“He is not just flash,” added former England prop Dave Flatman. “He is a brilliant game-manager, a wonderful communicator.”
Born in the Philippines with a British father and a Filipina mother, Smith started to play rugby when he lived in Singapore, aged seven. He continued when his family moved to the UK and as you’d expect, played at all the representative levels including England U16, U18 and U20, impressing along the way.
The slight frame of Smith combined with his ball handling skills saw him start playing rugby at scrum half before shifting to fly half in his mid teens. A decade later he’s still on the smaller side even for fly halves weighing in at 82kg and standing 1.7 metres tall (although his spiky hair probably adds a few inches).
Smith made his professional debut in 2017 for Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby season opener and within a fortnight had picked up his first man of the match award when Quins beat Wasps.
Across the next four seasons he continued to perform well and established himself as Quins’ first choice fly half under the mentorship of former All Black and Quins legend, Nick Evans. It became clear that he was a special talent but with George Ford and Owen Farrell well established as the England playmakers, it seemed that an England shirt was going to have to wait.
That all changed in the 2020-21 season when Smith had the sort of season that made it impossible for Eddie Jones to resist the momentum behind the young fly half.
In early 2021, Smith became the second youngest player to score 500 Premiership points with only Jonny Wilkinson having achieved the feat at a younger age. He went on to win the Premiership Rugby Golden Boot, score eight tries, delivered 15 assists and was crucial in Harlequins sensational Premiership Final win over strong favourites Exeter.
Jones gave Smith his chance at international level in July this year and let him loose against the USA and Canada. Not baptisms of fire for sure but Smith delivered good performances against both sides before finding out that he’d been called up to provide cover for the British and Irish Lions. He would play the full 80 minutes against the Stormers and helped guide the Lions to a 49-2 victory.
His defence coach at Quins, Jerry Flannery, has felt that he’s ready for the highest level of the sport for a while. “He’s so ready for Test rugby and he’s only going to get better when he gets there,” said Flannery when speaking with The Guardian earlier this year.
Flannery isn’t the only one who believes Smith is the future of English rugby and with a stunning performance in his first game back this domestic season, it looks like we could be at the beginning of the Smith era.
When trying to identify what makes Smith stand out compared to others, there are a number of qualities to admire. His attacking play has drawn many compliments and the stats support the claim that he is very effective when he’s got the ball in his hands.
In Quins championship season just gone, Smith had the best tackle evasion rate in the league and was at or near the top amongst his fellow fly halves in categories such as metres made, breaks and average gain per carry. He not only gets his team going forward, he keeps them there and never lets opposition defences settle.
Flannery echoes this last point and suggests that it’s down to Smith’s understanding of how to move the defence around to suit his plan. “His ability to move laterally changes the picture for defences at the last moment and his acceleration is so sharp,” shares the former Ireland hooker.
For those who watch Smith, it can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that he’s playing off the cuff and using natural talent to react in the moment. But World Cup winning lock, Ben Kay, disagrees.
“He’s not an instinctive player, everything he does is thought about, he just processes it quicker than everyone else,” Kay explains and it’s this preparation and control that helps to set Smith apart.
He’s shown both the composure and the maturity to genuinely control games and he knows how to deliver in game defining moments. In last season’s semi-final, for example, Smith struck a perfect conversion in the 77th minute that sent the game into extra time – totally unfazed by the pressure of the situation and how the entire season hung on that one kick.
As always happens when new talent appears, there are comparisons made. In the case of Smith there are those who liken him to the creative Danny Cipriani and worry that his international career will go the same way if Jones doesn’t see Smith as the right fit. Cipriani was playing some of the best rugby of his career in the lead up to the 2019 World Cup and was arguably the best fly half in the country. Despite this Eddie Jones did not select him for his squad and Cipriani commented at one point that he “would have had to turn water into wine to really sway him.”
Others however look to Australia for their comparison with one former Wallaby skipper suggesting that Smith is very similar to a young Quade Cooper, but without the drastic highs and lows.
With Cooper and Smith potentially lining up opposite each other on 13th November at Twickenham, the comparison is an interesting one to explore.
Yes, the original Cooper might well have had those hot and cold tendencies but the 2021 vintage is quite a different beast. As he demonstrated in all four of his games in the recent Rugby Championship, Cooper has changed and the words “measured”, “controlled” and “composure” were used over and over to describe his successful performances.
When he stepped up to take the crucial penalty against the Springboks in his first game back for the Wallabies he never looked like missing it. He looked so calm and in control of all that was going on around him and at peace as the ball soared through the middle of the posts and the stadium erupted around him.
Cooper himself speaks highly of Smith. In a recent interview with the Daily Mail, Cooper said “If you look at number 10s around the world now, you’ve got Finn Russell, Marcus Smith, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga – electric, entertaining players who have a skillset other than just standing in the pocket and kicking the ball.”
Eddie Jones feels that it’s players like Mo’unga and Barrett who Smith should look to in order to guide his development.
“We are looking for him to continue to develop his game and you have just got to see the way that Barrett and Mo’unga are playing for the All Blacks what is needed in a modern-day 10,” explained Jones earlier this year.
Smith’s performances this year have forced Jones into a situation where he’s going to have to make a series of tough decisions.
It’s not just about whether he plays Smith at No.10 or not. What does he do with George Ford and Owen Farrell if he brings Smith in? To get the best out of Smith, should he also bring in Quins number eight Alex Dombrandt who combines so well with the fly half at club level?
To get the best out of Smith,you could argue that the entire England game plan needs to be adjusted. Chris Jones of the Evening Standard wrote recently “No doubt Marcus Smith can bring something special to England Rugby IF Eddie Jones embraces the concepts that make Nick Evans such a brilliant attack coach.”
Smith does possess a lot of the skills that the England coach believes are essential for a top quality fly half. Speaking recently Jones explained that “a 10 that can take the line on, can be aggressive, know when to hold his depth, and be an extra man in defence,” were the keys to fly-half play.
Interestingly, whilst the new look Quade Cooper has developed better control and been reliable in the tackle, questions are being asked about whether he’s lost that ability to be aggressive and take on the defence.
For an England fan base who have been through a frustrating couple of years since the heights of the 2019 World Cup Final, a new game plan and a new man at fly half is just what is needed. Smith has proven that he deserves his shot in an England jersey and the evidence suggests that Jones give him both the game plan freedom and the jersey and let him see what he can achieve.
If Cooper and Smith do face each other in mid November it will be fascinating to see which fly half ends up victorious. Both players are standing on the cusp of an exciting period in their careers with the 2023 World Cup shining in the distance as an ambition for both of them.
The next few weeks could play a crucial part in how their respective stories are written in the sport’s history books.