Rugby World finds out how the fly-half marries an almost childlike joy for the game with a steely focus and constant desire to improve

The two sides of Marcus Smith

As Marcus Smith makes the short walk from Rugby World’s makeshift outdoor photo studio to the warmth of the coffee shop at Harlequins’ Surrey Sports Park base in Guildford, he is approached by a group of girls, not much younger than him, and asked for an autograph, a programme from the England-South Africa match thrust in his direction. He is happy to oblige and share in a brief exchange on the excitement of that game.

Smith has been well known in rugby circles for a few years now but the past eight months have catapulted him to a new stratosphere and the wider public consciousness. After all, he has won the Gallagher Premiership with Harlequins, made his England debut, been called up to the British & Irish Lions tour in South Africa and kicked the last-minute match-winning penalty against the world champions in front of a full house at Twickenham.

“To be honest it’s a bit surreal to be recognised but I don’t see it as a negative or a pressure,” says Smith. “I see it as a privilege and an honour. If I was going to achieve what I wanted to achieve when I was growing up, then this was going to happen.

“I’ve got to embrace it now it’s here and carry on being myself and carry on improving. Because hopefully I can keep improving and keep getting games for Harlequins and England.”

His performances in the victories over Tonga, the Wallabies and the Springboks in November, not to mention his club form, would suggest the games will keep coming. And the South Africa match is a particularly good example of how he has developed his game since first arriving on the senior scene as an 18-year-old in 2017. Smith is known for his attacking instincts, but against the Boks he showed plenty of pragmatism, too, kicking for territory and clearing pressure. It’s all about balance.

“That’s the biggest part of the game which I’ve tried to learn,” he explains. “Being at school and playing for England age groups, you don’t really kick much. I remember my first-ever game for Quins, I didn’t kick the ball once and I got subbed off after 65 minutes while last season I think I kicked the ball the second most in the league (he was behind only London Irish’s Paddy Jackson for kicks in play).

“For me it’s about understanding why you kick the ball. I’ve done a lot of work with Nick Evans here, Tabai (Matson) more recently, even Guzzy (Paul Gustard, former Quins head of rugby) I’ve learnt loads from with regards to my game management and kicking game, as well as the feedback I receive in camp from Eddie Jones and the England coaches.”

Smith has balance in his approach, too, combining the desire to improve and a steely focus on learning all he can with an almost childlike joy for playing the game – his celebrations leave you in little doubt as to how much he loves rugby. It is an intriguing combination, the pressure of professional rugby not quelling that natural passion, but it is one that is clearly working.

The 22-year-old rewinds to his childhood playing rugby in Asia. Born in Manila, the family moved from the Philippines to Singapore when he was seven and weekends were dominated by sport. They would spend Saturdays and Sundays at the local rugby and football clubs, with training in the morning followed by big BBQs in the afternoon and the kids would then take to the pitch to play tag, touch, football…

“My rugby journey is probably a bit different to others. I grew up in Asia, the sun was always out and our lives revolved around sport and being together and enjoyment mainly. I still keep in contact with my age group back home in Singapore; we were extremely close and a lot of those guys are now living in England, studying at unis in England, so I’ve been able to catch up with them on a face-to-face basis, which is great fun talking about the good old days running around in Singapore.

“When training finished we used to get our shoes off and socks off, eat a bacon sandwich with a cold drink, then get out there bare foot and play football and rugby. We’d be out there for hours.”

As for his willingness to attack – and the skill-set to set his ideas in motion – Smith puts that down to the Hong Kong Sevens. The family went to the premier event on the sevens calendar about six times while Smith was growing up and he’d be so inspired by the feats he saw on the pitch there that he’d soon be practising them himself, looking to outfox his younger brothers Luc and Tomas with the type of sidestepping talent he’d seen from Fijian greats.

Marcus Smith sidestep

Hot steppers Marcus Smith and William Ryder (Getty Images)

“For me, that’s the fun part of the game,” says Smith of attack. “At the Hong Kong Sevens, I used to watch the likes of William Ryder and Waisale Serevi and these sorts of players, who used to make the crowd get off their seats and bamboozle defenders. That inspired me to try to learn that. I’m still trying to get there but it’s exciting. I want to entertain and I want to get the crowd off their seats.”

To do that Smith is constantly looking for new ideas and more knowledge, discussing the game with coaches and players. Yes, he has the vision and instincts to produce moments others might not even see let alone do, but he puts in plenty of work too; he doesn’t rely on his natural talent, he adds layers to it.

On top of the ‘extras’ that are now a prerequisite for any professional player, he looks to learn from others. In England camp, he’ll discuss moves and tactics with other players, just as he did on the Lions tour in South Africa.

It’s the same with coaches. He gets to work with Jonny Wilkinson in England camp. He’s still in touch with Nick Buoy, who coached him at Brighton College, and regularly messages former Harlequins assistant coach Sean Long, who describes Smith as “a sponge” and “inquisitive”. Long adds: “He is so dedicated to rugby and would be out there for hours after training, working on his kicking and passing. He just wants to get better every day.”

For Smith, rugby is a subject to master and that means soaking up as much information as possible. There is a clear emphasis on development but that process is also something he takes enjoyment from.

“For me, I love my rugby, I’ve always loved it. I don’t see it as a chore at all, watching clips, watching highlight videos, watching games and studying opposition and studying players. For me, it’s actually a hobby; I bloody love it.

“I don’t see it as a job to be honest. I absolutely love coming to work, I absolutely love getting out there in the cold, in the sun, in the rain, throwing a ball about and trying to get stuck in with the boys. The way I think about rugby is I still feel it’s like playing for Brighton College on a Saturday at school. I’m extremely lucky and grateful for that opportunity, and the day I find it a chore is the day I’m regressing in my career so I hope that never comes.

“I’m still only five years into my career, I’ve still got a long way to go in every part of my game and I’m constantly reflecting on my performances. I’m just at the start, I’ve enjoyed my last five years playing here at Quins and I’ve enjoyed the last six months playing with England.

“Every time I step on the field it’s been a massive honour. I want to put my best foot forward on the park, but as I say I’ve got a lot more to learn in every facet of my game. I’m excited about that and I’m excited about how far I can take it.”

He describes the England set-up as “a very open environment – everyone is sharing ideas, everyone is open to learning and everyone is willing to receive feedback”. It’s the same in terms of keeping in touch with Long or players he got to know on the Lions tour like Finn Russell. “I try to keep up with these guys because they’re all legends in the game. For me to learn one bit every time I speak to them, hopefully that will all add up in my career and allow me to be a better player every single day.

“I connect with Longy all the time. I send him clips, send him my thoughts and see if they marry up with his thoughts, like I do with Finn as well, just to hear his thoughts because everyone is different, everyone sees the game differently. And if I can pick up one golden nugget from him or Longy or anyone I speak to, it’s only a positive.”

Had his life taken a different route, Smith may have been thriving in another sport. His first childhood dream – and that of his mum – was to be a footballer. He actually had trials with Tottenham and trained with Brighton’s junior set-up as a teenager. But when the rugby took off, playing for Brighton College and earning a spot in the Quins’ academy set-up, his focus turned from the round to the oval ball.

“I fully committed to it and most evenings, especially in the summer months, I’d be out in the park opposite our house, which has posts, kicking a ball around, passing and sidestepping. I enjoyed every minute of doing that with my dad and brothers.”

Family is hugely important to Smith. When he first moved out of home to join Quins full-time, he’d head back to Brighton often, craving his mum’s cooking (and laundry). These days he can wash his own clothes and is a decent cook (his mum taught him how to make his favourite Filipino dish, sinigang – a sour soup), yet he still tries to visit every couple of weeks and they are regulars at his matches.

It’s his parents, Suzanne and Jeremy, as well as his two brothers who he points to as being the biggest influence on his sporting career. “They’re the reason why I’m playing rugby and I’m so grateful to have such a supportive mum and dad as well as brothers who sacrificed their weekends to ferry me around. I’m extremely lucky to have brothers who are so supportive. Without them and my mum and dad, I don’t think I’d be here today.”

Not that all the messages he receives from Luc and Tomas are of the positive variety; their support also involves making sure he stays grounded. “Tom gives the biggest amount of stick. He is the first to message me after games, is the first to laugh at me if I mess something up. They also think they can pick my sidestep, so they always say they know where I’m going when I sidestep.

“For me to have that brotherly love and banter with them, I enjoy. I’ve got a brilliant support group around me off the field who are able to take my mind off the rugby stuff, which is massively important.”

His brothers may mock him in the way only siblings can, highlighting the smallest of mistakes, but there was plenty of praise from other quarters for Smith’s performances for England in November. Those Tests came more than four years after he was first called into the England squad by Jones, with the coach describing the then 18-year-old as an ‘apprentice’.

There was plenty of clamouring for the fly-half to be capped before he finally made his Test debut against the USA at Twickenham last July, yet the experience he had gathered in that ensuing period meant he felt more at ease in the England environment.

Last summer it helped that there were a lot of players he’d come through the age grades with in the England squad, there was a sense of familiarity, while in the autumn he was able to build on the “deeper connections” he’d made with those England players also involved with the Lions.

“In the most recent campaign in the autumn and the one in the summer, I was much more relaxed than I’ve ever been, which I’m happy about. I think in my early times, obviously I was very, very young, I was still extremely inexperienced.

“I’m not saying I’m experienced now, but I arrived in camp with many more games under my belt here at Quins, a lot more experience that I’ve learnt from. I’ve made mistakes in big games for Quins, so I’m able to go there and be in England camp with a much more mature mind and a much more focused mind on what I want to achieve for the team, mainly to do with attack.

“I’ve got older, I’ve been lucky to have some brilliant experiences that any young player would learn loads out of. I also think my relationship with the senior boys in England has grown over the last six to eight months, which is a massive help when you go into those environments. When you’re a new guy, if those senior boys put an arm around you, support you and guide you, it makes it a whole lot easier.

“All the senior boys (have done that). In the summer, I spent a lot of time with Ellis Genge and Henry Slade, and again they put their arm around me this autumn, as well as Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes. These sort of guys that I idolised growing up are still brilliant England players, so to be supported at such a good level by them gives you the confidence to be yourself.

“I genuinely feel I’ve improved my game and improved myself as a person (during the autumn campaign). You’re out of your comfort zone every time you step into an England camp; it’s not always the same players there, you’ve got to get to know people and get to know how to get the best out of your team-mates, who reacts well to shouting, who reacts well to an arm around them.

“I think to be able to get the best out of your team-mates and to share feedback effectively, then you need to know your team-mates, you need to know your colleagues, because in the heat of battle you don’t have time to think about what you say all the time, you have to understand how to get the best out of your team-mates pretty quickly.

“On those sort of fronts I feel I’ve had to learn and adapt, as well as speaking in an England environment, which when I was younger I was extremely nervous about but now I’m getting to grips with.”

As is tradition, Smith had to mark his first cap with a song and Life Is A Rollercoaster seems like a fitting choice for all that has happened in his career to date. There are sure to be many twists and turns to come, but he certainly seems to be on an upward curve right now.

Still, for all the praise coming his way and the extra attention, it is something closer to home that gives Smith himself the most joy. “To see my family so happy and proud when I take the field, to see them in the crowd, inspires me to do it more. For me, that’s how I find happiness.”

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s February 2022 edition.

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