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FEATURE Marcus Smith: 'I felt run down...being able to refresh my mind was key'

Marcus Smith: 'I felt run down...being able to refresh my mind was key'
4 months ago

Marcus Smith frequently tops the charts for eluding tacklers, and trying to pin him down for this interview was a similarly there-one-minute-gone-the-next experience.

For a couple of days my journalistic fingers were left pawing at thin air, like the galaxy of hapless defenders who had gone before. And understandably so. Marcus Smith is a man on a busy schedule; a man in demand whose stock continues to rise – a rare talent, a natural showman, a serial collector of player-of-the-match awards (just ask Danny Care), an exuberant nugget of athletic creativity, a man with a point to prove this Six Nations. Marcus Smith is a bright young symbol of an established sport’s new chapter.

But even the greatest showmen and the brightest symbols need a breather, lest they burn out. After the World Cup, Smith admits he was mentally run down. Not quite himself. Not quite right. Slightly rootless after so many months away with England. The love for the game in danger of ebbing away. He needed a reset. He needed a break.

A perpetual bundle of energy, enterprise and all-round positivity, Smith is not a person with whom one would associate the tag ‘burnout risk’. Yet English rugby, especially in the wake of Owen Farrell’s international sabbatical, needs to protect the Icarus wings of superstars such as Smith. A character in an Ernest Hemingway novel says of bankruptcy that it happened “gradually and then suddenly”. And so it is with burnout. Yet Smith is vigilant with regard to his own wellbeing. Feeling out of sorts in late autumn, the 24-year-old was quick to identify his fatigue and acknowledge he was not feeling himself. He talked things through with those closest to him, and worked with his club Harlequins to ensure he could have some proper R and R. In short, he showed a good slice of emotional intelligence – both for himself and others.

Marcus Smith
Smith says he didn’t feel himself after returning from the World Cup but is refreshed after a break (Photo Leo Francis)

“I was definitely feeling it from a mental point of view, more so than physically,” he says, his wide-ranging and frank chat with RugbyPass facilitated by Optimum Nutrition. “If I’m honest, the first few weeks of returning to Quins I didn’t feel myself. I felt a bit tired, I felt run down. But I shifted my energy, shifted my mindset and hopefully I delivered some better performances the last few weeks in order to help the team.

“I’ve been trying my hardest to do that but during the first few weeks [after the World Cup] I definitely found that hard. I feel much better now.”

He does indeed look well, a healthy glow about him following an early January break to Dubai – a dose of winter sun Quins boss Billy Millard recognised his playmaker needed. Polite and personable (he asks about my own new year before I can ask him about his), Smith is also honest. Honest about everything from his health to matters of faith.

After the highs of the World Cup and how much pressure and scrutiny you’re under there, I came back to Quins…Being able to refresh my mind and shift my mindset was key – to attack what was in front of me

Coming back to London from the hot fires of media scrutiny in France, Smith gradually found his feet again. The fly-half’s fondness and gratitude to Quins – the club which has been his rugby home for a decade – is obvious. If the England camp is where Smith attracts the most headlines, it’s at Quins where he feels most nurtured.

“I guess [it was about] finding the love of the game,” he says. “Quins is a club I love dearly. Quins have supported me ever since I was 14 and obviously it was very different to the England training. Being able to be at home and have the comforts of my own space played a big part [in refreshing me]. But also understanding the challenges ahead.

“After the highs of the World Cup and how much pressure and scrutiny you’re under there, I came back to Quins. And while those things are still present it’s a different competition and a different thing in itself. Being able to refresh my mind and shift my mindset was key – to attack what was in front of me.”

And attack he has. His performances in December and January, as my colleague Nick Bishop has sharply analysed, carved apart defences, both in body and mind. In the Champions Cup encounter at Racing 92, Smith delivered arguably the try of the round with a dummy and step back against the grain.

But it wasn’t just a single moment of brilliance, it was a performance of sustained control. The long-range drop-goal on the cusp of half-time was a puncture wound to Parisian hopes, and showed how Smith the bravura ball-player can be Smith the pragmatist. And bouncing around at Twickenham a few days later, Smith did it all again – guiding Quins to a win over Gloucester with another drop-goal and yet more lashings of style.

Marcus Smith
Smith has landed two key drop-goals for Quins recently, showing a more pragmatic approach (Photo Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

“Again?” mouthed his half-back partner Care with grinning theatricality when Smith was announced as player of the match. Yes, again, Danny. And again and again.

Yet Smith can navigate the hard times as well as the good. There is a tough interior beneath the coiffured exterior. Less than a year ago, Smith started at fly-half when France subjected England to a record 53-10 home defeat. It was grim. To some it might have been utterly deflating, but Smith seems to have taken it in his (hitch-kicking) stride.

Smith the boy has become the Smith the man before our eyes, but the boyishness remains. Yet he has always had to grow up quickly. In just over 12 months, he went from captaining his school, Brighton College, to being an apprentice in the England senior squad. That takes some maturity and some resilience. And that resilience, he says, comes from his closest relationships: with his family, his girlfriend, and with God.

“Family means everything to me, and if they’re happy at home and they’re happy in their own lives it allows me to express myself on the field,” he says. “My mum pushes me to the limit – she’s my chief motivator. My brothers are probably my biggest critics but they’re all so supportive. My dad is always there for me and he probably understands rugby slightly more than my mum, so he gives me a few pointers. It’s about ensuring my mind is in a healthy place and talking to them and talking to my girlfriend allows me to get things off my chest and digest them, which I think is massively important, especially with the long, rigorous schedule that we have.

Like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods before him, there is a sense that Smith can elevate his sport to new markets and, crucially, attract a younger constituency.

“My mum’s very Catholic and we used to go to church a lot when I was younger and I always try and go whenever I can. If I’ve got a spare moment, I’ll always try and go down there and show gratitude for everything God’s given me and my family.

“I always try and pray with my mum. It gives me an extra bit of strength and allows me to trust what’s happening is happening for a reason and to get on with it, enjoy my life and be grateful – think about what I do have as opposed to what I don’t. I’m so lucky and privileged to be in the position I am. Obviously, I couldn’t have done it without hard work but the talent and people I’ve been blessed with have made it possible, and that’s down to God.”

Such talent is widely recognised – not least by one of the biggest talent agencies of them all. Smith entered the stable of uber-marketable rugby rock stars in March 2023 when he signed with Roc Nation Sports International, the sports agency founded by US rapper Jay-Z. In so doing he joined a gilded list of modern rugby’s elite which includes Siya Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe, Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge and Ardie Savea. It was a deal accompanied by a slick TikTok. One comment below the video spoke volumes: “my family absolutely love u especially my mum”. Smith, with an Instagram following closing in on quarter-of-a-million, has just that kind of cross-generational, multimedia appeal rugby needs.

Marcus Smith
Smith’s signature hitch-kick encapsulates the attacking instinct which is the hallmark of his game (Photo Franco Arland/Getty Images)

The big brands are after his signature as much as young fans are after a selfie. The Nike swoosh on his jumper speaks of his commercial clout, while he sips from his Optimum shake throughout our interview. Nike and others realise he is an athlete who can transcend his particular sport, and maybe even sport itself. Like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods before him, there is a sense Smith can elevate his game to new markets and, crucially, attract a younger constituency. And with a certain Welsh winger exiting rugby stage left for the NFL, the ball is in Smith’s hands.

It says something about a rugby star when a particular attacking move – it could be a step, it could be a type of pass – becomes synonymous with them. And so it is with the Smith hitch-kick, a step which encapsulates his attacking instinct, the identification of space, the controlled balletic flamboyance. But it’s not just his legs that hitch-kick; his brain does too. As with all the top attacking fly-halves, Smith’s little grey cells appear to work a heartbeat quicker than those around him. The ability to translate decision into action is always rapid, often devastating.

Will Smith be given licence to play his instinctive game this Six Nations or will it be something more contained? Perhaps a fusion of the two – the type of fusion which yielded decisive drop-kicks against Racing and Gloucester.

I think the foundations Steve and the coaching team made during the World Cup and pre-World Cup have been amazing, and we’ve hopefully got the foundations of a brilliant team for the next few years. I think we can really kick on.

Smith is uncompromisingly ambitious when asked about his and England’s goals for the championship: a Grand Slam. But he also recognises the need for the squad, which contains seven uncapped players, to gel and evolve as a new World Cup cycle begins.

“It will be difficult as it is every year – everyone loves playing England – but we’ve got to aim high, and to win the tournament and a Grand Slam will be our aim,” says Smith, who has 30 caps so far. “Ultimately, we need to develop as a team and I know the boys selected will give their all, not just for the people in the group but for the country as well. We want to make them proud and happy.

“I think the foundations Steve [Borthwick] and the coaching team made during the World Cup and pre-World Cup have been amazing, hopefully the foundations of a brilliant team for the next few years.

“If we can sing off the same hymn sheet and bounce ideas off one another and move the team forward it’s only going to be beneficial for all of us. That’s definitely at the forefront of our minds to develop as individuals. If given the opportunity I want to play in a tactically smart way to enable us to hopefully lift the trophy at the end of it. But we know that’s going to take a lot of hard work and cohesion and I’m definitely ready for the challenge.”

Part of the challenge is competing with George Ford and Fin Smith for the starting fly-half spot, and establishing what the England outside-half hierarchy looks like in Owen Farrell’s absence. Farrell’s decision to miss the Six Nations in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental health will, surely, have ended the brief World Cup experiment of deploying Smith at full-back.

Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith
Owen Farrell has acted as a mentor to Smith since he came into the England set-up (Photo Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Yet Smith is confident the former England captain’s presence will continue to influence the squad, even from afar.

“First and foremost, I can’t speak highly enough of Faz – what he’s done for me personally, how he’s helped me ever since I was an apprentice,” says Smith with no little earnestness. “He’s always had his arm around me and always given me his honest feedback. He’s always willing to help and he’s always been approachable, and I’m very grateful to have a person like him to go up to and ask his opinion. I really appreciate his honesty. It’s going to be a big spot to fill but I’m sure he’s going to be supporting us and sharing his thoughts and opinions, because he’s a tremendous leader and I wish him well with this period of rest.

“We’re in a very privileged position where we’re able to be scrutinised and praised, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. However, we are also human, it does take its toll. For Owen to be captain of England and Saracens for a long time probably has pressures I wouldn’t even understand. To be able to perform well at the weekend you need to have a clear mind and with all those pressures – I’ve felt a few – sometimes you do need a break and you do need to rest the mind because it’s a rigorous season and an emotional rollercoaster.”

After his own mini-break and with his own mind rested, Marcus Smith seems ready to buckle up for the international ride. And to no doubt hitch-kick his way past a few more tacklers yet.

Comments

2 Comments
P
Patrick 141 days ago

If only Borthwick would lock him in to the 10 position… the no. 1 option for England. So there's no faffing about with experiments with Ford, Fin Smith etc. That would give a solidity and confidence to the England team that they haven't had since the Wilkinson days.

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