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'One of the worst 10s I have ever played with...'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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Isolation-free Joe Marler was in his element in the lead-up to Saturday’s England clash with the Springboks, initially delivering a scathing tongue-in-cheek assessment of Marcus Smith before going on to very much sing the praises of the youthful out-half who has excelled since breaking through at international level earlier this year.

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Having missed last weekend’s win over the Wallabies, Marler was back training with England at their captain’s run on Friday ahead of their first meeting with the Springboks since the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama 24 months ago.

New Sale signing George Ford was the first choice England No10 in that World Cup cycle but Eddie Jones has now changed things up, placing his faith in Smith ever since the 22-year-old made his Test level debut in the summer series win over the USA in July.

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Freddie Burns on whether the Springboks will target Maro Itoje and Marcus Smith
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Freddie Burns on whether the Springboks will target Maro Itoje and Marcus Smith

Smith, who was also a mid-Lions tour call-up by Warren Gatland, is now primed for his fifth England cap in what will be the biggest game of his embryonic career, but praise for his fellow Harlequins player was initially in short supply from Marler ahead of the clash with the Springboks.

Asked what Smith had done to impress so far at Test level, Marler cheekily quipped: “He is one of the worst 10s I have ever played with and I refuse to give him any sort of praise. Left-hand pass is awful and the amount of kicks I have seen him shank, I don’t know what all the hype is about.”

Marler couldn’t keep the skit up, though, and his attitude changed when a follow-up query quizzed him on how early he knew Smith was the real deal as an out-half with all the tools necessary to run a team properly. “Probably the first time that I ended up training with him and looking at him in awe of how assured he was but not assured that I have seen youngsters come through in a way of ‘wind your neck in, mate’, a fake sort of front where they have overcompensated in order to survive in adult rugby, like an 18-year-old coming in.

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“He [Smith] wasn’t like that. He was very much ‘do this, do that’. He was very confident in directing forwards, directing the guys around him and also sticking to what he loves doing which is ball in hand and his little goose step that he does and doing it with a massive smile on his face.

“It was pretty early on where it was ‘okay, this kid is going to be quite good’ and with that was, how can we help? How can we help him stay at Quins because we would quite like him to be ours and to make us good, and also make his progression?

“I have actually managed to not contribute anything to that but luckily loads of people around have looked after him and he has got a great head on his shoulders, lovely full head of hair as well which upsets me sometimes. But he is a great talent and the difference is that he is prepared to work hard.

“He is not just happy to be like, ‘I am good’. His feet are on the ground. His parents are really great people. He has got a good family around him and I feel really uncomfortable about the amount I have just fluffed him, so can we caveat that with I still think he is really, really s**t.”

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Whereas young out-halves could cause a negative reaction amongst a pack of forwards looking for direction, Marler never had any doubt about Smith and the influence that he wields. “Yeah, there is no second thought for me.

“I have played in teams before where Nick Evans has gone down pretty early and the sub ten has come on and immediately you rally around the pack and go, ‘right lads, we are going to have to change the game accordingly’, or ‘let’s get around to the ten a bit more’.

“There is no thought about that (with Marcus) because I am confident in his ability. The only flag that I would try and help him keep on top of and want him to keep on top is him being himself and sticking to what he enjoys doing, how he wants to play the game, what he loves to do in playing the game and trying to get him to understand not to go away from that.

“He is the best person to be Marcus Smith. There is no one else that can be Marcus Smith. He is the best person to do that. So just be Marcus and enjoy yourself. I just love watching him play. He is great fun.”

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