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'I'm still able to go for my Nandos, I don't get hassled too much'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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Impressive performances this month are nothing new to Marcus Smith, the exuberant out-half who has fast become the latest poster boy for all that is good about the current England team under Eddie Jones. However, his eye-catching, easy-on-the-eye style of handling business isn’t just confined to his try-scoring efforts at Murrayfield and Stadio Olimpico. He is equally suave these days in his media dealings, a raconteur who is well worth an audience.

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He was polished in his post-match delivery in Rome last Sunday and equally as eloquent when conducting the live section of his briefing last Wednesday over Zoom from the England team hotel in Chelsea. He even had time for a mischievous quip about Wales players “stealing my money” when he played cards with them on last year’s Lions tour.

Then came the more considered segment of the access – the 15-minute written newspaper section that would be embargoed until this weekend, making him the main thrust of the rugby coverage on this Guinness Six Nations fallow weekend.

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Episode 21 – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Six Nations Review and Sinckler’s Sauna
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Episode 21 – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Six Nations Review and Sinckler’s Sauna

A year ago, you would have had a cat in hell’s chance of Smith breezily fronting media and talking so candidly about himself and much more besides. It was last June, prior to the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals, when Harlequins wheeled him out for a low-key late Monday afternoon session at which he spoke about how he lately relocated the smile he had for the game during his final school years in Brighton.

“Nick Buoy always told me to play what is in front and do it while smiling which for me I try and do now. I went away from that, if I am being honest with myself, a couple of years ago and I’m glad that I have found my smile again because it has definitely helped me on the pitch,” he explained at the time, unsure why that infectious smile had been lost.

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“I don’t know. If I had the answers I don’t think I would have got into that position myself but I am glad that I have gone past that now and hopefully it doesn’t come back because it helps me out and keeps me happy.”

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Within the space of six weeks after that sneak preview as to what makes Smith tick, he swashbucklingly went from a first-ever Premiership title win with Quins to an England debut and onto a mid-Lions tour call-up. It was quite the spectacular career accelerator and with Jones now firmly backing him as his Test team No10, the Smith that broke bread with media in midweek was classy in every aspect of his delivery.

Fame, family, his hair, Jonny Wilkinson… all that and much more were up for discussion in a breathless quarter-hour where he captivated his audience with insightful answers to the 17 questions put to him. So diligent and mannerly was he in his must-listen-to replies that he regularly referenced in his answers the name of the journalist that had asked him that particular question.

It was cordially respectful, something some less accommodating rugby players should note, and ultimately it provided ample evidence that any Six Nations fame with England and all its accompanying razzamatazz isn’t going to negatively big-head the recently turned 23-year-old in the slightest.

Grateful was a word persistently used by Smith throughout the session. Take the new challenge of handling the greater public recognition now that he is starring at Six Nations level, the tournament that propels rugby beyond its usual boundaries. “I’m very lucky to have brilliant people around me, my mum and dad, brothers, my girlfriend as well,” he enthused.

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“They try and keep all this external stuff out of my eyesight but I guess as a human being you hear about it and sometimes see it but I try and keep my distance, try and focus on the key things that my coaches and my family are showing me as well as my teammates and sort of go from there really.

“Yeah, walking through Guildford is still the same, I am still able to go for my coffees, I’m still able to go for my Nandos when I can on my day off. I don’t get hassled too much, it’s not football so I am extremely enjoying it. I am still enjoying walking around Guildford – and Brighton as well – when I can.”

Being mentally strong is critical and Smith has no better mentor than Wilkinson, the shining light of the 2003 World Cup success, to nudge him along the path to rugby greatness. They meet regularly, the England legend constantly on hand to give a dig out with a whole myriad of issues. “It has been brilliant working with Jonny,” said Smith with that trademark smile.

“I have been very lucky to work with him for the last four or so years and every time I met him I leave our session or leave our meeting with a new breath of life. He is exciting to talk to, he teaches me a lot about rugby. Not just about kicking or anything to do with rugby but about a way of living your life, a way of being, when pressure comes on, when pressure is not on, when things go your way, when things don’t go your way.

“If you can learn to control those sorts of things then you eventually become bulletproof, which is where he was in the latter stage of his career and I would reckon that is why he was so successful. I am learning a lot from him with regard to my mental strength and stability.

“When things go well it’s never as good as it seems and when things go badly it is never as bad as it seems so try to keep a level head. Having a good perspective in your life allows you to stay level and on the path that you and your coaches and your family have agreed and want you to get to.

“For me, there is no specific thing he [Wilkinson] has taught me about that [fame], it’s something you can’t really teach or prepare anyone for. It’s one of those things that you have got to experience whether the hard or the easy way and touchwood luckily so far it hasn’t been any stress on me. I’m happy and I’m enjoying my life at the moment.”

Family is the fuel that most nourishes the Smith soul. They travelled up to Edinburgh, journeyed out to Rome and were around to celebrate his 23rd birthday this past week. So hectic have the past nine months been with the youngster speeding from being an upcoming club out-half to someone now known the length and breadth of the rugby world and beyond, it’s been hard to find sufficient time for a proper reflective catch-up chat with his loved ones on what has been achieved in a short space of time.

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A post shared by Marcus Smith (@marcusmith10)

“I haven’t really had a chance to properly talk to them about it. It is one of those things that is sometimes hard to speak about. From my side, I am extremely proud to represent my country and I’m sure and I hope more importantly that they are extremely proud of me as well. Maybe come the end of the season or when I get some weeks free I’ll probably chat to them and see how they felt. They travelled to Rome, travelled to Murrayfield. Everyone time I step on the field I try to do them proud, try to do them justice to the trip worthwhile.”

It has always been that way for the Manila-born bundle of energy who went on to give thanks for the part that younger brothers Luc and Tomas have played in making Smith the player that he is. “Those guys, the sacrifice they have made for me and my career has been immense. The other week I did a drop goal or something and it didn’t go above the bar and the first thing they said to me was they were laughing their heads off, peppering me with messages and videos of it.

“Those two – and if I start getting too big for my boots my parents as well – will step in and tell me that I am going the wrong path, that I am not Marcus anymore which for me is the most important thing, be true to myself and the rest of it is what it is.

“Back home in Asia we used to go on rugby tour to Malaysia and those two wouldn’t play for their own teams because they wanted to watch me. Those two would travel to Australia and miss their own games, miss their fun to come and support me as a family. I have got to credit a lot of it to them because those two are so special to me and I don’t know how they sacrificed those weekends watching me, probably pretty boring to watch back then but it was extremely special, it allowed us to travel as a family and stick together as a tight-knit group.”

One thing that is currently dividing the Smith family is the England No10’s distinctive hair which is now at a length where he is constantly having to flick it back with his hand to keep it out of his eyes. Even as the hair question was put to him the other day, he instinctively lifted his left hand and ran it over his bonce. Is it time for a snip? “I’m close,” he confessed.

“I have got a few people who are massive fans of it, my mum and my girlfriend but my dad and my two brothers told me not to have it anymore, shave it off fully, less distractions. I kind of like it. I have grown up with long hair and my mum always wanted me to have long hair growing up. She wanted us to be like the Jonas brothers when we were younger so I have got to keep her happy a little bit but it doesn’t distract me that much, only when it gets really wet. I am dealing with it at the minute and if it gets too much of a distraction and all gets unlucky I’ll get rid of it.”

There was plenty of growing up done away from home last July when Smith was parachuted into the Lions mid-tour. The memories are still vivid, especially his relations with the Welsh contingent who are Twickenham-bound next Saturday looking to derail the chariot that got back on track in Italy following its first-day Scotland mishap.

“There was loads I learned off the Wales boys in South Africa, I was lucky to share a dressing room and learn with those guys. Alun Wyn Jones is an absolute trooper the way he is so meticulous in his preparation. It’s no accident why he has got that many games so for me to see that at such a young age is special.

“And then Dan (Biggar), he helped me a lot with my kicking game, he helped me a lot with my understanding of the game and I just tried to pick all of their brains. Owen (Farrell) and Finn Russell) as well as Dan, so I was very lucky. I was like a cat in headlights, to be honest,” he said, adding that he also struck up a friendship with Louis Rees-Zammit, a fellow young gun on tour. “I got on well with him, he is a funny bloke. We keep in touch whenever we can. We are both busy with our schedules but we had a good time in South Africa.”

That good time extended to Smith – and Rees-Zammit – fetching up as a waiter on the socials the Lions enjoyed, something he has continued at England camp. “It’s the way life is. It was both of our first tours. I arrived late on the tour so you have got to do your work so on drinks nights and stuff like that me, Louis Rees-Zammit and Tom Curry, because we were the three youngest, had to serve the boys a drink, get them glasses.

“I guess it is part and parcel of any walk of life when you are new to an environment. It’s like doing the tea rounds. My dad told me he used to do them in his estate agency in Brighton when he first started, as well as my mum when she worked for Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, so I guess it happens everywhere.

“I still do the tea rounds,” he added, switching the focus to England. “I’m actually going to have a cup of tea with Manu Tuilagi tonight [Wednesday] and a shortbread if we are lucky. Out in Jersey when I roomed with Chief (Tuilagi), we had a lot of tea nights together. I made them, he was on his bed playing chess and I think it is massively important. It’s a way of bonding together as a team which is important for us as this new group of England.”

Being knowledgeable beyond rugby is something Smith makes a point of because it ultimately feeds back into his rugby. “I love keeping track of what is going on over there in the Philippines, first and foremost checking if everything is safe with regards to tsunamis and things going on back home. I try and keep in touch with my Philippines side, I was born there, it’s a proud part of me and I always try and keep an eye on stuff going on over there.

“But when I am in camp as well I enjoy playing cards with the boys, playing Xbox with a few of the other boys as well, just spending time with each other because for me it is massively important, especially as a fly-half to get to know my team around me and try and understand the best way to get the best out of them.”

As for the process of getting the best out of himself, Smith is forever busy with his journal, frequently jotting down notes on how he can get better. “I constantly evaluate my performances and the way I train. I have tried to stick to my trademark whenever I can with regards to every session and every game I get the opportunity to play in and I constantly write notes in there, things to work on, things that I am doing well and try to see where I end up.

“For me, it is just ‘keep being myself, stay true to myself with regards to if I feel something is on back myself and if I think something in my head say it’. So yeah, stay true to myself and then the work on is to keep making my tackles.”

That process continues next weekend at Twickenham with the Welsh in town, an opponent whose name had Smith’s mind drifting back to a special family outing as a precocious teenager in 2011 to see the then England team under Martin Johnson strut its stuff.

“I can’t remember the exact details but I knew how excited my dad was to see Manu Tuilagi playing with a favourite player, Jonny Wilkinson. Me and my two younger brothers were there with my mum and dad and made a good day out of it. The (Welsh) rivalry was there and it was pretty evident even as a young English fan and my dad definitely told me a lot about that growing up as a got older as well, how much it meant to him.”

For sure, it will now mean all the more for Smith Snr with his son poised to run out to play against them in seven days’ time.

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