Marcus Smith runs in a decisive try for Quins against Wasps in May
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The last time Harlequins reached the Premiership final, a 13-year-old Marcus Smith bagged tickets through Brighton RFC and travelled up to Twickenham.
“I was there,” says the fly-half with a grin. “I was waving my Quins flag when Robbo scored.”
Chris Robshaw’s close-range try from an angled run proved decisive in a 30-23 victory over Leicester Tigers. Nine years on, with a potentially thrilling play-off semi-final against Bristol Bears this weekend, reminders of 2012 remain.
Nick Evans and Jordan Turner-Hall, fly-half and inside centre that day, are part of an intuitive coaching set-up. The fingerprints of the former have been all over a league campaign in which Harlequins have averaged more than four tries per game.
Mike Brown is banned but two more players surviving from the 2012 final squad, Joe Marler and Danny Care, will be eager to maintain their fine form at Ashton Gate. Then again, the boy in the crowd for the club’s greatest occasion may have the biggest influence on this title bid.
Punctuated by 270 points already, Smith’s season has featured moments suited to heroic comic strips. His last-gasp tries beat London Irish and then Wasps in successive Premiership matches between April and May. Perhaps more striking, though, has been the 22-year-old’s mature and assertive leadership.
Although ‘game management’ can seem a vague term when attached to a half-back’s ability to control matches, Smith believes he has tangibly “made strides” in this area since breaking into the Harlequins first-team as a raw 18-year-old. Video analysis of his decision-making alongside Evans has helped.
“In my first game against London Irish [at Twickenham in September 2017], I don’t think I kicked the ball once in 60 or 65 minutes,” Smith says. “I think it was a shock to my team, as well as to myself when I saw those stats!”
Bristol eventually won a captivating contest 35-33, but a visit to Ashton Gate in March emphasised these improvements. Cute touch-finders continually found space behind the hosts’ wings and kept Harlequins moving forward.
Smith admits that he became slightly blinkered, which stifled his enjoyment of the sport, a couple of years ago. Now, he is striking a blend. Eddie Jones has noticed. Having feared Smith would develop into a “pattern player”, England’s head coach recently suggested that Harlequins’ quicker ruck speed has allowed him to impart “a nice balance”.
“[He is] understanding the responsibilities of getting the team organised, but also playing what’s in front of him,” Jones said last week.
Such praise begs two questions. Is Jones finally prepared to cap Smith, and would Smith be able to bring his instinctive stardust to the Test arena? As the man himself explains, there is only one way to find out.
“Hopefully, if I get an opportunity in the near future, I’ll be able to translate my performances for club to international,” Smith says.
“But I’ve never played for England, so I don’t know what it’s like yet. I’ve got to fit into the team around me. It’s not just about me – I’ve got to fit into the gameplan, and into the system that Eddie and the other England coaches want to play.
“I hope I can add something if I get an opportunity. Until I get a chance, which will hopefully be soon, I guess no one will know.”
Dialogue with Jones, fairly regular since his appearances in various training camps, has been constructive. Smith agrees with the Australian’s points on breakdowns, for instance.
Smith is still awaiting his first England cap
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“We speak a lot about ‘lightning quick ball’ [at Harlequins],” he adds. “We have brilliant back-rowers and tight-five forwards who have been excellent all season – really brutal at the breakdown. That’s making life easier for me and Danny [Care] and the rest of the backs, so massive credit has to go to the forwards.
“We’ve gone back to our DNA as far as offloading and keeping the ball alive which, I guess, stops the ruck completely. That has been a massive positive for us and something we’ll try to bring this weekend.”
The message coming out of Harlequins all week has been that a knockout atmosphere will not suffocate them or dim the ambition that has allowed them to pile up points and overwhelm opponents following Paul Gustard’s departure in January.
Smith distils the basic plan to oust Bristol into three bullet points: “We have to get our set piece right, we have to get our kicking game right and we have to get the ball to our magic men in the wide channels.”
Do all of that accurately, while complementing it with defensive steel, and Harlequins should be back in another Premiership decider against either Exeter Chiefs or Sale Sharks.
Smith may well have two Twickenham outings in July if selected to face Canada and USA for England. You sense returning there with his boyhood club before that would mean just as much.