British and Irish Lions: Just enjoy the occasion, Warren Gatland tells Lions new boy Marcus Smith

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 (PA)
(PA)

Warren Gatland has encouraged Marcus Smith to play his natural game when his remarkable rise continues tomorrow with a start for the Lions in Cape Town.

Smith, 22, has had an extraordinary few weeks. On June 19, he orchestrated a stunning comeback for Harlequins in their Premiership semi-final against Bristol and, a week on, led his side — who finished fourth in the regular season — to the title at Twickenham, seeing off Exeter.

His harum-scarum, goose-stepping style finally won him an England debut against the USA at the start of this month and it was during his second cap, against Canada last Saturday, that news broke he had been called up by the Lions. He learned of the announcement from former Lion Richard Hill (the England team manager) when he was replaced in the second half.

Five remarkable weekends will be capped when he pulls on the Lions jersey tomorrow.

Marcus Smith made his England debut against the USA earlier this month. (PA)
Marcus Smith made his England debut against the USA earlier this month. (PA)

“There’s no doubt he’s got some real attacking prowess, he’s matured significantly and we’re excited about him having an opportunity to start,” said head coach Gatland.

“The message to him is just to go out there, enjoy the occasion, make the most of it and make a few people sit up and take notice.”

Smith starts because the fly-halves on tour resemble the walking wounded. He was called up a week ago because of Finn Russell’s Achilles injury. Owen Farrell has had niggles on tour, but was thrust into the South Africa A game on Wednesday because Dan Biggar has a “minor ankle sprain”. It has not been minor enough to allow him to start this game as planned, however.

“It is one of those ones where if we give him a bit more time then he is going to be fully ready to go for training on Monday,” said Gatland. “If he plays he’d be okay but it will probably be sore afterwards. It is about managing that situation. If it was a Test match he would have fronted up and been ready to go.”

So while a starting berth next Saturday seems fanciful for Smith, a place on the bench — where Russell might have been pencilled in to bring some game-changing sparkle — is not. And if there is one thing Smith has shown he can do over the last month, it is change games of rugby.

No cause seems lost to him. Smith appears undaunted by the task facing him against the Stormers tomorrow.

He told reporters in Cape Town yesterday he had dreamt of playing for the Lions since watching the 2009 series against South Africa, aged 10, with his father in Singapore. The family would move to the UK three years later, and three years after that, he was already catching Eddie Jones’s eye as Japan trained at his school, Brighton College, during the 2015 World Cup.

“Obviously the series outcome was disappointing but it was a massive spectacle and it made me really desperate to get on one in the future,” Smith said of the 2009 series.

Now he has made it this far, it is evident he carries no fear.

“They are very aggressive, they like their niggly stuff,” he said of the South Africans. “But when I can have a go against the big boys I will back myself. We have spoken about their physicality but it is nothing we can’t handle. We are excited for the challenge.

“I would love to be involved in that [the Test series], but my main focus is getting a chance this weekend: give the ball to the outside backs, organise the forwards and, if I get a bit of space, have a go myself.”

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