Marcus Smith settled to produce a fine performance on his Lions debut
The driving force behind Marcus Smith’s fairy-tale summer, and indeed his promising career so far, has been rare rugby intuition.
It was fascinating to watch that quality come to the fore during the 22-year-old’s British and Irish Lions debut against the Stormers on Saturday. He can unfurl flicks and tricks, but Smith is an astute problem-solver before anything else.
Watching him settle for the Lions served to reinforce as much, his accomplished performance also begging the question of whether Warren Gatland might consider Smith for his first Test squad. Far stranger things have already happened on this crazy, compelling tour.
First half: Feeling his way and finding the wavelength
Gathering the kick-off and sending a 50-metre clearance up-field represented an assured start for Smith.
From there, though, it was a while before he asserted his influence. Take this short sequence. The Lions have just stolen a Stormers lineout on the edge of their own 22.
Duhan van der Merwe carries. Watch Smith. He scans the far side of the breakdown…
…before spotting something on the near side:
He heads in this direction, arcing behind first-receiver Tadhg Beirne. Adam Beard and Jack Conan are out of shot close to the near touchline. Smith clearly wants a pull-back pass to probe this flank:
However, it does not come. Beirne is tackled by JJ Kotze and Ernst van Rhyn. Stormers scrum-half Godlen Masimla is on the edge of the hosts’ defensive line, making a beeline for Smith. This would be a trend of the game:
Shortly afterwards, and slightly further up the field around the halfway line, Masimla shoots up to pressurise Smith again.
Smith manages to feed Hamish Watson, but the pass dips and the Lions lose momentum. Note that Stuart Hogg is close to his fly-half:
Indeed, two phases later, Smith and Hogg seem to get in one another’s way. Both of them attempt to play the role of second-receiver behind Adam Beard. That harms the Lions’ fluency:
Marcus Smith Lions 1
The Stormers are able to stay organised and, after another couple of phases, Beirne is smacked backwards by Neethling Fouche.
Stormers force a turnover and Smith, who had clearly been keen for Beirne to throw a pull-back, has to tackle Evan Roos:
Marcus Smith Lions debut 2
Generally, Smith defended robustly. He was credited with eight completed tackles – second only to Robbie Henshaw’s tally of 10 among the Lions’ backs – and only missed two, neither of which hurt his side.
Here, the Stormers target him from the back of a driving maul. Blindside wing Leolin Zas arcs behind centre Daniel du Plessis…
…but Smith and Watson stop him…
…with Smith even attempting to strip the ball clear:
In the 27th minute, with the Lions trailing 3-0, some composed counter-attacking helped spark Gatland’s side. As Masimla hoists a box-kick…
…watch Smith and Elliot Daly among the retreating Lions and the Stormers’ chasing pair of Juan de Jongh and Zas:
After Beirne gathers the loose ball and feeds Hogg, Smith and Daly combine to pick off the Stormers and free Duhan van der Merwe down the near touchline:
Marcus Smith Lions 3
That foreshadows a clinical attack finishing in a try for Beard:
Smith did spill one high ball and, although his kicking out of hand has improved on Harlequins duty, this is the sort of moment that could be costly in a Test match – especially if someone like Cheslin Kolbe is the catcher.
Sergeal Petersen is able to field a kick under little pressure and beats two men:
Marcus Smith 4 Lions
However, Smith’s half ended on a promising note and demonstrates an attribute we have heard from many coaches already – that he is a quick learner.
Watch Jonny Hill’s try, including the replay from a reverse camera angle:
Two phases before the lock’s finish out wide, Smith and Hogg are close to one another again:
This time, though, Hogg arcs a long way around Smith to the wide channels. There, he is able to free his Exeter Chiefs teammate.
As the Lions headed down the tunnel at half-time, following one of seven successful conversions from their fly-half, Smith and Hogg shared a brief conversation:
In the second half, any kinks seemed to have been ironed out.
Second half: Cutting loose while maintaining control
The Lions’ fourth try, scored by Conan, was a three-phase set play that resembled the move with which Australia sliced apart England at Rugby World Cup 2015:
Almost six years later, the Lions call a five-man lineout and post two back-rowers, Watson and Conan, in midfield:
Conan’s strong carry gets them started and the strike is slick:
The movement of Smith and Daly is crucial. They creep towards the near touchline before changing direction behind a three-man pod of forwards that comprises Watson, Beirne and Beard. Beyond them, Hogg offers himself as well.
Interestingly, perhaps as a distracting measure, Hill is hugging the far touchline with Van der Merwe. Ali Price spins to locate his fly-half with Hamish Watson ducking, as Wallabies loosehead prop Scott Sio did in 2015.
Smith dummies towards Conan before flicking the ball back inside to Daly. In truth, the pass looks forward from this angle:
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But it is a good example of a playmaker using the aggression of a defender against them. Smith sucks Roos out of the line nicely:
As the Stormers tired, the Lions could try out a few funky things. This backline split from a 53rd-minute scrum was intriguing…
…but the Lions conceded a set-piece penalty, which denied us a chance to see what would have transpired.
Before leaving for South Africa, Smith promised to be himself. He is delivering on that, but remained measured at the weekend.
At this scrum, after Chris Harris has replaced Henshaw, he starts alongside Daly…
…before fading in behind. Daly becomes the first-receiver, and sparks an attack with this pass to Hogg:
Moments later, the Lions move in-field and Smith feeds Alun Wyn Jones, who is heading up a three-man pod:
Some neat interplay between this pod, made up of Jones, Zander Fagerson and Sam Simmonds, injects impetus. Then, on the next phase, Smith is at first-receiver again.
The integrity of the Lions’ attacking shape reflects their playmaker’s organisation. There is another three-man pod – comprising Jamie George, Hill and Mako Vunipola – to Smith’s right. Daly is nestled in behind as a second distributor. Beyond him are Hogg, Louis Rees-Zammit and Beirne.
Watch two Stormers defenders in particular: left wing Edwill van der Merwe and sweeping centre Du Plessis. Smith spots Van der Merwe’s aggressive rush….
…and acts accordingly, dinking a chip into space:
Marcus Smith Lions 6
This attack was brought all the way back for a knock-on off the first phase, but demonstrated Smith’s ability to orchestrate phase-play despite only having spent a week with the Lions squad.
He then began to cut loose. This hooked cross-kick from second-receiver found Van der Merwe over the head of Masimla:
Then, after the Stormers rushed up to harry him again, an unfussy pass to Mako Vunipola sparked this breakaway:
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On review, Smith may have wished he had released Gareth Davies with an inside pass rather than feeding Van der Merwe.
He was not as charitable in the 74th minute, beating Abner van Reenen with a hitch-kick before drawing Petersen and unleashing Rees-Zammit. Smith would have been emboldened by the scoreline, but had shown himself willing to attack from his own 22 in the opening exchanges as well:
England held Smith in the back-field during their Tests against USA and Canada, and there was a late reminder of what he offers as a kick-returner. The footwork here is exceptional, even if a pass to Davies could have come before a fumble:
Marcus Smith Lions 8
Thanks to Smith’s late flourish, this was probably as authoritative a performance from a Lions fly-half on the tour so far. Finn Russell was impressive against Sigma Lions, with Owen Farrell polished in the first game against the Sharks.
In the 2017 Test series against New Zealand, Gatland involved Jamie George, Elliot Daly and Kyle Sinckler for the Lions before they had established themselves as England regulars. Picking Smith to face South Africa would constitute a bigger leap of faith, not least because of the Springboks’ ferocity and the importance of a tight kicking game.
After declaring himself fit via his Mail on Sunday column, Dan Biggar seems to be in line for the number 10 shirt. Injury appears to have beaten Finn Russell, though. That leaves Owen Farrell, who has the benefits of experience and versatility and whom Gatland trusts.
But, as Saturday showed, the Lions certainly have a wildcard among their ranks. Who would bet against another twist for Smith’s remarkable summer?