English rugby normally loves a caveat. Player X is potentially great but is his defence good enough? Player Y looks the business but what about his attitude? Which makes it all the more unusual to hear so many hard-bitten former professionals raving about Marcus Smith, the Harlequins fly‑half ripping it up for his club but still awaiting the call to represent his country.
Listen, for instance, to the considered verdict from the Harlequins defence coach, Jerry Flannery: “He’s so ready for Test rugby and he’s only going to get better when he gets there. What struck me when I met him is how incredibly driven and ambitious he is. He wants to be the best player in the world, never mind the best player in England.”
Given the tough world of Munster rugby in which Flannery grew up, that is some drum roll for a bouncy-haired, public-school educated fly-half. In Limerick they tend to be wary of young upstarts in danger of “getting above their station” without first paying their dues. “It is rare,” Flannery says, referring to Smith’s global aspirations. “I haven’t come across it before. But to be fair to him the kid backs it up in terms of his workrate.
“He’s the last player off the training pitch every single day. He’s incredibly durable and a fantastic athlete. You often see young players stuttering through that weird phase between underage representative rugby and senior level. He hasn’t missed a jump. You try to give him a break and he wants to be on the sideline running messages. You come across players who are ambitious, confident or even cocky but Marcus is very coachable and always looking to improve. Every week he’s striving.”
The view among Quins’ other first-team coaches is strikingly similar. Adam Jones, the scrum coach, reckons that “if he was Welsh he’d have 50 caps by now”. Nick Evans, the former All Blacks 10, has been working as his mentor and says he “can’t see what more he can do to put his hand up”. At this rate even Johnny Marr and Morrissey will be joining the new Smith’s fanclub.
All of which makes the latter’s next move fascinating. When it comes to selecting successful international fly-halves, there is an unwritten rule: it pays to pick an English No 10 as early as possible. Of the 10 specialist red rose fly-halves capped this century, seven have been aged 21 or younger. The other three – Freddie Burns (22), Dave Walder (23) and Andy Goode (24) – started only 14 Tests between them.
The trend has held remarkably firm, with Jonny Wilkinson blooded at 18. George Ford and Owen Farrell were 20, as were Danny Cipriani, Olly Barkley and Shane Geraghty. Rob Andrew, Stuart Barnes, Charlie Hodgson and Toby Flood were 21. For the sake of comparison, the great Dan Carter was also 21 when he made his All Blacks debut, as was Finn Russell when first picked for Scotland. Dan Biggar was still a teenager when he first appeared for Wales against Canada in 2008.
Exceptions clearly exist to every rule, most notably Ireland’s Johnny Sexton who was 24 when he won his first cap, partly down to a July birthday and a broken thumb which ruled him out of 2008 Six Nations contention. But, at 22 years and three months, Smith’s rising status lends an extra frisson to the Premiership fixture on Saturday between Leicester and Harlequins at Welford Road. In the green, white and red corner will be Ford, who has 77 England caps and is only 28. Opposite will be the in-form Smith, miles in front as the Premiership’s leading scorer. Only one can start against USA on 4 July and Smith is mustard keen. “I am desperate to play for England,” he says. “I have been desperate since I started professional rugby, it was a dream of mine when I was a kid.”
While Ford clearly has plenty of rugby left in him, England’s fifth-place finish in the Six Nations has hardly bolstered the case for retaining the status quo. Flannery, who spent years playing with Ronan O’Gara, also makes the point that fly-half remains an agenda-setting position. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the meanest pack in the world. If you haven’t got a 10 you’ll never challenge. Look at the leading European teams over the years. Toulon had Jonny Wilkinson, Leinster had Johnny Sexton, Saracens had Owen Farrell, Munster had Ronan O’Gara. There’s always a top-quality 10, it’s a key part of the jigsaw.”
Smith is not a crunching Wilkinson-esque defender but he can do things few other 10s can. Forget the 244 points in 17 games this season, ignore the recent match-winning late tries against London Irish and Wasps, and focus on the artful little outside fade to find space before he had caught the ball during the 48-46 thriller against Wasps last Sunday.
“When you show players things often all they see is why it may not work,” Flannery says. “But when you speak to Marcus he always sees it. He’ll see what other players can’t see as possible. He’s also athletically able to do things other players can’t. His ability to move laterally changes the picture for defences at the last moment and his acceleration is so sharp.”
When it comes down to making tackles, Flannery also insists Smith is more than capable. “I think his defence has improved an awful lot. People should remember he was playing Premiership rugby when he was 18 years old just out of school. I’m 42 and I get nervous when I see the size of some of the players.”
If anything, he says Smith can be too quick to react defensively. “It’s about getting others in the defensive line to connect with him because he’s just so quick. You don’t ever want to tell a guy to go a bit more slowly but …”
Welcome to the future, as and when Eddie Jones finally backs him. At Quins they have long since discharged the jury. “I’m lucky that I get paid to watch Marcus Smith play rugby every week,” Flannery joked. “England are very lucky to have players like that. He’s not a guy who, when he achieves something, goes: ‘I’ve done it!’ Like I said, he’s driven to be the best in the world.”