Marcus Smith could soon be in England contention
Credit: Getty Images
Harlequins upset the odds to win the highest-scoring Premiership final of all time against Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham on Saturday, with 22-year-old fly-half Marcus Smith one of their best performers. Here, Kate Rowan assesses what makes Smith such an exciting prospect.
Marcus Smith has now made 105 senior club appearances, so it is easy to forget he is still only 22 years old. Yet his calm, clear-headed approach to big-match rugby is testament to the bank of experience he has built up.
Take his first contribution to Saturday’s final, just four minutes in, when he struck a perfectly weighted penalty to set-up a five metre lineout that would be instrumental to his side’s opening score a penalty try.
If, as Eddie Jones suggested beforehand, this game really was an audition for Smith and his opposite number – the Exeter No10 and captain Joe Simmonds – to show they are ready for international rugby, in what the Australian calls the “toughest position in world rugby”, then the youngster was hardly showing it. He continued to handle the pressure moments with aplomb, kicking perfectly and orchestrating most of Quins’ best moments.
The only blot on his copybook would be his sin-binning just before the half-hour, although even that was a case of taking one for the team – he was offside with Exeter on the line.
𝘞𝘢𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘶𝘱 𝘢 𝘾𝙃𝘼𝙈𝙋𝙄𝙊𝙉.
🏆 #GallagherPremFinal | @MarcuSmith10 pic.twitter.com/pJj8MmqnQA
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) June 27, 2021
Quins’ old warrior and fan favourite Joe Marler might have put in a Titanic performance in the front row, and earned the official man of the match award, but there was no question who was the stand-out defender in this breathless final.
Smith 13 tackles, more than any other back in the game, and during the periods of relentless Exeter attack when Rob Baxter’s men were camped on the Quins’ line, it was Smith who was most unwavering.
It is this quality which might persuade Jones that Smith should be his man for the summer. The head coach likes a fly-half who can tackle, as Owen Farrell will attest, and while Smith’s maverick qualities on the ball have been a key factor in Harlequins’ thrilling charge to the title, it is thosedefensive numbers that will sway Jones.
Passing and creativity
“Creativity” is the word most associated with Smith, and one of the reasons he has become such a favourite not just of Harlequins supporters, but rugby followers nationwide.
That term can be treated with suspicion by Jones, and players who earn it have been known to be pigeon-holed (Danny Cipriani, anyone?), but it is hard to avoid the quality Smith possesses.
Smith was literally a creator in the simplest sense with two try assists on Saturday: as well as setting up Dombrandt, in the 71st minute he was able to scoop up centre Joe Marchant’s pass and pop it out for Louis Lynagh to score the first of his two tries from the wing.
Passes leading to line-breaks in the 2020-21 Premiership season
This was a fine example of just how much time Smith seems to get on the ball compared to other fly-halves, something which allows him to throw opponents off while being able to create in such a composed fashion.
One person who literally has the inside view of Smith is his half-back partner Danny Care, who praised his natural touch as well as his commanding presence. “With a player that is so instinctive like Marcus the last thing you want to do is force structure on him,” said Care. "We have absolutely loved what he has brought to this team."
From that first kick to touch that set the tone, Smith’s game management – bar a few periods of frantic defending in a game that ebbed and flowed – was again hard to fault.
In the closing passages, when his side were under pressure with Exeter rallying, he was able to nail his kicks to touch, showing the ability to manage what was a frenetic game. As Care observed, "His leadership is incredible for such a young guy.”
Coping without Care by his side will be one of the intriguing sub-plots, if Smith is handed a start by Jones in the coming weeks. A degree of pressure is taken off his young shoulders courtesy of Care’s presence, given the scrum-half is one of the most seasoned campaigners in the Premiership and a veteran of multiple international campaigns with England.
Marcus Smith's kicking was also effective at Twickenham
Credit: Getty Images
In the final quarter, Care was in his element, taking care of the basics and organising his team-mates, all of which allowed Smith to have those moments of brilliance like setting up Lynagh’s try.
Care only sees good things on the horizon even if he will not be there in his on-field mentor role.
“Look at Marcus, the last couple of kicks he knocked over from the touchline. That kid is incredible, that kid is special, I cannot wait to see him in an England jersey this summer,” he said. “I am so happy for him he has got the recognition that he deserves and now he has got a Premiership medal. Hopefully he has got an incredible summer and I know he has got an incredible future.”