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Then, Marcus Smith was 13 years old and “a little bit too cheeky, getting
told off a lot”. He was in the stands at Twickenham with a Quins flag and his rugby-mad younger brother, having managed to secure a ticket through Brighton Rugby Club, where he was learning the game. He remembers Chris Robshaw’s second-half try that took Quins clear of Leicester.
Nine years on, he is the ringmaster of a gallivanting, coast-to-coast Quins side that contains remnants of the 2012 team, paired with a raft of young
English talent. Victory at table-toppers Bristol tomorrow would take them to Twickenham once more. Smith leads the league’s points charts (270, including eight tries), Quins scored more points than any other team (703), while only Exeter scored more than their 89 tries.
Smith is yet to play for England, but has spent around half of those nine years as a rugby person of interest. Eddie Jones first spotted him playing for Brighton College in 2015 and picked him as an ‘apprentice’ two years later. In the 2017-18 season, which he started aged 18, he played in all but one of Quins’ Premiership and Champions Cup games, starting 21 times.
The expectation is that, at 22, he will finally make his England debut this summer, with Owen Farrell and George Ford elsewhere. But, as for all child stars, the route has not been totally straightforward. Smith has been a near-constant first choice throughout his time at Quins, but somewhere along the way Smith “lost his smile”. Jones felt he had become a bit too much of a “pattern player”.
In recent months, though, Smith has been back to his fizzing best by playing what is in front of him.
“I went away from that, if I am being honest, a couple of years ago, and I am glad I have found my smile again, and it has helped me on the pitch,” he says.
“It’s come back naturally. The way we are playing excites me, the way we score points freely. It’s down to the work the forwards are doing, and it’s a joy to play with some of the backs we have got, because they are electric and it makes my job easy just throwing the ball, follow them in and see what happens.”
Quins general manager Billy Millard, who is close to appointing a new director of rugby, has seen a growth in maturity in Smith, who signed a new contract this season.
“He’s matured,” he said. “He’s so self-motivated, so driven, so coachable, and the way he is now speaking around the group in meetings and training, that has transferred onto the pitch.
“It’s not just his onfield stuff, it’s his ability to talk in meetings, at training, talk over some big characters to make sure they are doing what he wants. He’s got a good, very balanced head.
“He’s a great kid. In that responsibility and confidence I’ve noticed a shift. But he’s always had it. He’s just going to get better. If you track [Johnny] Sexton and Farrell and these guys, he’s on the same of maturity trajectory. We love him and I’m sure he will deliver on Saturday.”
If he does, Smith should have a much better view of this final.
Harlequins:1 Marler, 2 Baldwin, 3 Louw; 4 Symons, 5 Lewies (cap), 6 Lawday, 7 Kenningham, 8 Dombrandt; 9 Care, 10 Smith; 11 Morris, 12 Tapuai, 13 Marchant, 14 Lynagh; 15 Green.