Owen Farrell’s absolute favourite word is ‘excited’. He used it 13 times in his press conference on Thursday despite looking decidedly unexcited. The only time that his face truly lit up was when he was asked about how Marcus Smith’s skillset could translate to full-back where he will make his first professional start against Chile on Saturday.
This is the Smith effect. The sense of unpredictability that sends a frisson of energy through the crowd when he is near the ball also rubs off on his team-mates, including Farrell who, if Danny Cipriani is to be believed, does not always welcome other fly-halves into the fold.
Smith, though, says that Farrell “has always had his arm around me” and the captain is quick to return the compliment, insisting few other players could have made the transition from fly-half to full-back as quickly as the 24-year-old Harlequins playmaker.
“No definitely not,” Farrell said. “Him being able to break games open and the athleticism that he has where he is able to beat people and go round people and use his feet like he does probably lends itself to doing that as well. I can’t speak highly enough of Marcus.
“He impresses everybody every day at training. He impresses everybody with every aspect of his game. He has the ability to break games open, which he has always had, and he has the ability to control games. To do the right thing at the right time, but also unlock a game by creating something out of nothing. Not many people can go from doing that at club rugby or even European rugby to doing that on an international stage.”
The conversion plan was first hatched at a warm-weather training camp in Verona in July when defence coach Kevin Sinfield broached it with Smith, who agreed to give it a go. That strategy was then accelerated when Anthony Watson suffered a calf injury in the same week that Farrell received a four-match suspension for a dangerous tackle on Wales flanker Taine Basham.
With head coach Steve Borthwick unable to reprise the Ford-Farrell twin playmaker partnership, Smith’s minutes at full-back in training ramped up before he was first used there as a replacement in the 29-10 defeat to Ireland. In terms of physical stature, there could not be a greater difference between 5ft 9in Smith and 6ft 5in Freddie Steward whose run of 28 consecutive starts comes an end on Saturday.
“Freddie is brilliant to learn off in terms of his high ball work,” Smith told the BBC 5 Live’s Rugby Union Daily Podcast. “He is world-class at that. To have him on my doorstep to ask questions to and seek opinions on how to cover the backfield, which he does so brilliantly, is massive for me.”
While Steward’s advice has been invaluable, Smith does not see his size as a barrier to his development at full-back. “There are a lot of full-backs who are quite short around the world. Obviously in 2003 they had Jason Robinson who was a livewire from the back. Mo’unga has played there a bit and so has Beauden Barrett and they are not huge. I think I can hopefully add something slightly different from the back in my own personal way.”
The Barrett comparison is not exact as he is listed at 6ft 2in but New Zealand’s use of a 10-15 playmaker system shows how the theory can work in practice. It is understood that Harlequins have reservations about Smith’s deployment at full-back but he says that playing in a different position will make him a more rounded player.
“I have tried to connect as much as I can with Faz this week and hopefully we will build that connection between 10 & 15 so we can link on the field and share ideas when there’s a stoppage in the game and seek the best solution to go forward with the team,” Smith said. “It’s opened my eyes to what the outside backs see and I think it has added a string to my game that I am excited to hopefully show this weekend.
“Obviously having played fly-half as well where you are in charge of a lot of different aspects of the game, to have a second pair of eyes giving you opinions, giving you thoughts, sharing where the space is, is really helpful. I have tried to be that guy from the back, slightly wider and trying to organise the forwards in different positions to allow me to get out the back or get the ball in positions where I can feel dangerous and threatening or I can put our wingers, who are brilliant with ball in hand, in space.”
Playing against Chile, ranked 22nd in the world, should give Smith the platform to showcase all those skills. Whether Borthwick reprises the experiment in the final pool match against Samoa, let alone a quarter-final, remains to be seen. Nor should anyone expect England to suddenly experience a Damascene tactical conversion. “Tactical kicking” was the second feature that Borthwick mentioned when invited to discuss Smith’s qualities.
Smith was also very much on message with England’s kick-heavy template. “For us, especially 10s, 15s and 9s, we want to try and dominate territory and field-position. With that sometimes when defences are so strong and they put a lot of numbers in the front-line it exposes some space in the back-field. In order to get a better return on the next… or to get a better opportunity in the next moment, sometimes you have to roll the ball in-behind. It means their forwards run further, they have got to do another couple of rucks, you get a kick-return.
“There’s a lot of thinking that goes behind it, we’re not just kicking it away for the sake of it. You’ve got to trust and believe in us that we want to do you guys proud. That’s always at the forefront of our mind.”