Marcus Smith will make his first Lions appearance on Saturday
It was while watching the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa with his father in Singapore that the 10-year-old Marcus Smith first dreamt of one day pulling on the famous red jersey himself.
“I remember being excited about how loud the stadiums were and the sea of red of fans who travelled to South Africa,” he recalled on Thursday, beaming in his red Lions tracksuit top. “Obviously the series was disappointing that we did not get the win, but it was a massive spectacle and it made me really desperate to get on one in the future.”
Saturday that dream will remarkably become reality for the Harlequins fly-half, capping off a season that more resembles a fairy tale.
Before Monday he had never even stepped foot in South Africa before. Now, having barely had time to reflect on the drama of his Lions call-up during what was only his second cap for England last Sunday, the 22-year-old now finds himself thrust into the starting XV to face the Stormers in Cape Town for Saturday.
With injury doubts over Dan Biggar (ankle) and Finn Russell (Achilles), Smith, whose attacking flair was the stand-out feature to Harlequins’ dramatic Premiership triumph, is now playing for a place in the 23-man squad for the first Test against the Springboks.
Marcus Smith celebrates with the Premiership trophy after a remarkable win
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“It is every kid’s dream to play in a Lions Test series in South Africa and against South Africa in the first Test,” he added. “So yeah, I would love to be involved in that. But my main focus is getting a chance this weekend, give the ball to the outside backs, organise the forwards and if I get a bit of space – have a go myself.
“I remember watching the 2009 tour with my dad. I was still in Singapore at the time and I just loved it.
“I am buzzing to be here now. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent the Lions. I am buzzing to be in South Africa. It’s unbelievable. I am just about settling in now. The boys have welcomed me nicely and looked after me.”
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, had already identified the swagger in Smith’s game as a potential point of difference when he named him in his long-list of players before he had even been capped by England.
What makes Smith so special
His form since then has justified that selection. His biggest test this week has been attempting to get himself up to speed with the Lions playbook. The way he has approached the task suggests he is not just prepared to play catch-up, but also wants to put his own stamp on the tour.
“As soon as I arrived, I was on the laptop straight away trying to get up to speed. Rugby is a simple game. All teams play in a similar way. It is just the terminology I was trying to learn, trying to get up to speed quickly so I didn’t let the team down if ever I was called upon.
“In my position, I need to understand how to get the best out of the players around me, make sure those boys outside me are getting the ball they want and the nines and the forwards are getting the communication they want.
“I’ve tried to get to know the boys as well as I can. On the rugby side, I’m still getting the calls a bit wrong sometimes, but the boys and the coaches are putting their arms around me and supporting me. They are really encouraging me which is making me feel very welcome and excited to keep calling, even if I make a mistake.
“Owen, Dan, Finn have helped me massively. I had a nice few long chats with all of them when to call certain plays and when to do things.
“They have all said to me if I need anything or need any extras or help then just give them a message. I had a nice Zoom call with Gregor (Townsend, the Lions attack coach) as well to top through the plan and what to do in certain scenarios.
Not even the physical threat posed by the South Africans appear to daunt him, even though at 5ft 9ins and weighing just 12st 8lbs, he will no doubt be a target of the Stormers’ ball carriers.
“A lot of the South Africans play in the Premiership week in, week out,” he added. “I love playing against them, they play with their heart on their sleeve. They are very aggressive, they like their niggly stuff. For me, I am excited for that and when I can have a go against the big boys, if I get the space I will back myself there and see what happens. We have spoken about their physicality but it is nothing we can’t handle for sure.”