Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
NZ NZ

FEATURE Is young prince Marcus Smith ready for the England throne?

Is young prince Marcus Smith ready for the England throne?
5 months ago

There can no better stage for auditioning for the England number 10 jersey than a full house at Twickenham. Some 76,813 jiving, rollicking fans flickered in the strobe-lit headquarters of English rugby ahead of the entrance of the young prince, Marcus Smith.

No introspection, no performance anxiety or pensive soliloquies here. It was time for action, time for the Harlequins young pretender to stake his claim to the throne vacated, temporarily at least, by Owen Farrell. It was time for Smith to fillet an ailing Gloucester side apparently ripe for the executioner’s block.

Eighty-one minutes later, Smith had won yet another player of the match award, and his 37-year-old half-back partner Danny Care was left ruefully shaking his head and miming the words ‘not again’ to the camera.

The scrum-half was full of praise for Smith on TNT Sports:

“These are the games Marcus wants to play in. The bigger the game, the better the performance you get from this lad.

“I’ve been blown away for the last five years playing with him. He gets better and better.

“He’s still eager to learn, he’s still eager to get better, and whether it’s in a Harlequins shirt or an England shirt, you will get 100% from Marcus every time.”

There seems to be no stopping the Marcus Smith bandwagon, and only the very cold and sober reflections of England head coach Steve Borthwick could throw a few last-ditch slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in his way. The calm Cumbrian may yet play Polonius to Smith’s exciting, excitable Hamlet in his England selection before the Six Nations opener against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on 3rd February.

But that outcome is looking ever more unlikely. Both Harlequins director of rugby Billy Millard and wing Cadan Murley agreed he has so much to offer England.

“He’s an extremely impressive guy, very driven, can add a lot of lightness and fun to the environment as well, but from a young age he was prepared to drive standards,” Millard said.

“And he showed it at the World Cup, we were so proud of him, he is so tough.”

Murley added: “Owen Farrell, George Ford and Marcus – they’ve got one thing in common. They are all rugby ‘nauses’ and they always want to learn.

“They all have different aspects as their main strengths, if you put the three together maybe you’d have the perfect blend.”

So, what are the improvements in Smith’s game which make him a more viable option for Borthwick now than he was at the World Cup? Over the next two articles, I will examine where Smith has grown, and the people he may need around him to be as effective for his country as he is for his club.

Any number 10 with any serious claim to start in a Borthwick-coached team needs a top-drawer kicking game. The Leicester Tigers side which the coach ferried all the way to a Premiership title in 2022 was the only one to average 35 kicks for over 1,000 metres per game, and Tigers eventually even wore down the patience of Saracens in a 105-kick snorefest final.

Likewise, Borthwick’s England averaged 36 kicks per World Cup game, six more than any other team. The formula almost won them a semi-final against South Africa. Like Northampton’s Alex Mitchell at scrum-half, Smith will need to find ways of balancing his natural attacking instincts with the controlled kicking strategy Borthwick demands.

The rugby fiesta against Gloucester showed he may be able to do just that. The run-pass-kick balance was good in open play: Smith had 20 carries, passed on 26 occasions and kicked 10 times against the Cherry and Whites. Of even more encouragement to his supporters was the high quality of the majority of those kicks.

Smith ended the match with no fewer than three 50-22s to his name.

 

 

The first example illustrates a kick return when the old Marcus might have routinely looked to run the ball back across halfway, with the side order of a hitch-kick thrown in. But the new version is fully aware of the strategic possibilities as the play unfolds, and has ‘triple threat’ at his fingertips: as soon as the two defenders on Gloucester’s wide left advance, anticipating the run, the young wizard opts to kick in behind them instead. The picture in Smith’s mind has widened, and that earns his team a turnover lineout throw in the opposition 22.

The second clip shows how adept Smith has become at improvising kicks when the angle is narrow. Receiving another kick on the Quins 5m line, he conjures a low, top-spun punt which careers all the way into the Gloucester 22 like the rugby equivalent of a Barnes Wallis ‘bouncing bomb’. It duly detonates in exactly the position Quins want.

That ability to find length from very narrow angles was a repeated theme – in this case from a penalty kick.

 

This is the new Marcus, mindful of the need to milk every last metre out of the punt and give his forwards the incentive of a 5m lineout drive to follow. Smith has always been able to ignite the backs around him (and number eight Alex Dombrandt) with his handling and break-assists, but this strategic vision to encourage backs and forwards alike is a development Borthwick will heartily applaud.

Most of the time during proceedings at the old cabbage patch, Smith was more than capable of keeping his head, and keeping those run-kick-pass options alive in every situation.

 

There is a dynamic 3-on-2, or even a dynamic 3-on-1 when Smith receives the ball. There is space for Quins to move towards the left sideline but the inside defensive scramble is closing it down fast. Once again, the strategic option to kick down the 5m channel overrides what might have been Smith’s attacking instinct to keep ball in hand.

It is of paramount importance the ball stays in play if Smith chooses to kick, and the accuracy of his delivery drops Louis Rees-Zammit in a very awkward defensive spot inches from the right touchline. The outcome is another turnover lineout throw deep in the Gloucester 22, and more encouragement for the home forwards.

Despite all the pyrotechnics we have learned to expect from Smith, it was two kicks which eventually decided the match.

 

 

First there is a neat chip straight up the middle which makes Quins centre Oscar Beard the favourite to pick up the ball, but what follows as the game reaches its climax is even more impressive.

In the white heat of a long 12-phase attacking sequence, in which he has just hit the line flat and hard on the previous play, Smith has the presence of mind to sit back in the pocket and kick a drop-goal. It is icy TCUP (thinking-clearly-under-pressure) of which Jonny Wilkinson would be proud.

There is little doubt Smith is hitting all the private marks for improvement Borthwick may have given him for his next entry to the international stage in 2024.

He strategized and calculated and saw the big picture just as well as he broke and passed and sniffed out attacking opportunities at Twickenham.

If that doesn’t send an unequivocal message to the England coach, nothing will. Smith has taken arms against a sea of troubles since his ill-fated introduction to international rugby in the dying embers of the Eddie Jones era. The next month or two will tell us whether the young prince has ended the doubts by opposing them so strongly.

Comments

38 Comments
C
Clive 165 days ago

Hoppity Skippity is not “young” and has loads of games under his belt at club and international level. Were he the real deal Quins would be champions and he would be a shoo in for the England 10 shirt.

N
Neil 166 days ago

Great article. Smith has all the necessary attacking skills you could possibly want from a 10. In the game vs Glaws he got front foot ball from his forwards….the quality of the ball provided by England has been poor for a few seasons now. My concern is he'll get pick picked to play behind a pack providing turgid service and be expected to work miracles and blamed if it doesn't happen.

M
Mitch 167 days ago

He’s ready for the throne but i’ll be very surprised if his coach has the courage to pick him. I see Borthwick giving him jersey #22 for England’s game in Rome.

d
d 167 days ago

Thanks Nick, happy 2024. Analysis makes sense to .E but most importantly….how do opposition teams shut him down? Looks to have grown quite a bit and is a constant threat like you say.

T
Tom 167 days ago

Smith is ready. Are England ready for Smith? No… and probably never will be.

O
Otagoman II 167 days ago

It’s great that Smith seems to be gaining more game smarts but I hope that running game does not disappear. Happy new year there NB.

s
steve 167 days ago

Needs to impove place kicking and defence . 3 conversions missed .

M
Mzilikazi 167 days ago

No question in my mind, Marcus Smith is one of the keystones Borthwick and his coaching team should build England’s rugby team around going forward into the looming Six nations 2024, and onwards into the future. I can see him becoming possibly the best 10 in world rugby over the next two RWC cycles. Great article , Nick ! Look forward to the second chapter.

Load More Comments

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search