The Gallagher Premiership’s brightest young star is in the midst of a puzzling second-year slump.
The 19-year-old flyhalf ignited Harlequins last season with electric play, proving himself more than capable at the professional level straight out of high school but was benched early into the second half of a Week 3 loss against Bath, losing his starting spot to James Lang for the next two weeks before being recalled against Saracens.
They rode a four-game skid with Smith in-and-out of the starting lineup before a crucial bench cameo helped secure an away win against Gloucester. So, what is going on with one of the most exciting talents in the Premiership?
An imperfect match
There is no doubt that Harlequins are potentially a better team with Smith’s talent on the field – his game-breaking ability is capable of changing a match even though there are still growing pains with the young flyhalf. However, in this current system, the unique skills he brings to the table are largely underutilised.
This is the perfect example of the player’s skill set and team system conflicting, or at the very least, offering an imperfect match.
The Harlequins run a two-pod system (1-3-3-1) which dictates a heavy load of forward-carries. Play tends to be ‘9 dominant’, with the halfback responsible for the direction of the side and most phases.
That is certainly true at Quins, with the experienced Danny Care controlling proceedings in phase play. Often they will just run both pods directly off Care, with Smith unable to be involved until the third phase. Here are Harlequins typical first two phases from the edge.
Smith does present a backdoor option, but the forwards just choose to carry most of the time. The halfback can also switch phases back to the short side, further starving Smith of touches.
This leads to the young 10 being out of the game for extended periods, and sometimes he tries to do too much when he does get involved. This was the case against Bath, which led to turnovers and his subsequent benching.
The forward pack they have built to play this style of game has size at the expense of mobility and extra ball skills. Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, James Horwill, Chris Robshaw and Renaldo Bothma are all big men who can carry strongly and can bash their way over the defence, but lack footwork, positional speed, agility and ball skills.
Danny Care also takes most of the out-of-hand kicking duties for the side. The box kick is used anywhere up to, and sometimes past, halfway by Harlequins to play a territory pressure game with less intent to use possession.
It’s old-fashioned rugby suited for inclement weather, using a pack to bully sides and kicking to dictate terms. This might be most effective during December and January but the season is much longer than that.
When you give most your ball to the forwards to take one-out carries, or kick it away to the opposition, the attack is going to suffer. Harlequins have only created 35 line breaks, less than half that of Exeter (70) and Saracens (73).
Less line breaks means less scoring opportunities, which equals fewer points on the board. All while their most dangerous attacking player is sitting away from the action, waiting to get involved.
Both Exeter and Saracens, the two most successful clubs over the last two seasons in the Premiership, play a one-pod system and a possession-based game. Saracens in particularly have managed to find an effective balance between having a big pack and being able to play expansively, allowing Owen Farrell to take control.
Moving to a one-pod pattern requires the 10 to step up and take more responsibility and become the glue that holds it all together. This creates an expansive game and increases the passes per phase, but requires totally different personnel with different skills and fitness levels.
With the current Harlequins pack, it is uncertain whether this is possible. However, there are instances where Harlequins fall into this type of arrangement by default and find success. After securing a kick, they play one pod for a carry but then find Smith at first receiver with two forwards outside him.
This is exactly the scenario you will see with Owen Farrell and Gareth Steenson regularly. Except, they run this all the time, everywhere, not just haphazardly.
Smith takes it to the line and fires a flat ball putting his second forward runner into a hole, opening up Saracens for a big gain.
With Smith’s dazzling footwork, breakaway running game, and dual threat short-long passing ability, he must get the ball in his hands more regularly to be able to do things like above.
A one-pod system would do exactly that by more than doubling his current possessions. A change of territorial strategy at the same time (more intent to use and retain the ball outside their 22) would allow Smith’s best skills to flourish.
There will be teething issues but this would give Smith a commanding role to develop as a 10 and a leader, while at the same time making the Harlequins more of a threat.
The set-piece has either malfunctioned or won penalties this season, using their tight five at scrum time but failing to connect at lineout time. Either way, this has limited the back play at set piece time. A change of focus from set-piece to use the platform with an intention to run back plays with Smith as a focal point would open up big-play potential.
His running game is a real asset that plays can be designed around, in close channels and wide channels with sweep lines to get Smith’s speed out on the perimeters. Promising young backs Joe Marchant and Nathan Earle will be the beneficiaries.
Steps to the future
Harlequins already have the most sought-after piece required to make this work, with Smith locked under contract for the next four years.
If they continue down their current path with Smith, they will fail to see how good things could be. If they expand his role and put the pieces in place to move towards a more expansive structure, they will reap the benefits in the coming years.
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