Marcus Smith given dispensation to return to Premiership action before Lions team-mates

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Marcus Smith of Harlequins celebrates after kicking a conversion to take the lead during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins at Twickenham Stadium on June 26, 2021 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Marcus Smith of Harlequins celebrates after kicking a conversion to take the lead during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins at Twickenham Stadium on June 26, 2021 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Fly-half Marcus Smith is on course to return from Lions duty for Harlequins’ Premiership semi-final rematch against Bristol Bears on October 8.

The majority of England’s Lions contingent are not due to play again until at least October 18 as part of a guaranteed rest period of ten weeks following the conclusion of the series that South Africa won 2-1. However, as a late call up to the squad, Smith, who did not feature in the Test matches, will be given dispensation to return earlier, meaning that he will only miss the opening two matches of Harlequins’ title defence.

Smith was instrumental in overturning a 28-0 deficit against Bristol in last season’s play-offs in a scintillating individual performance that helped propel him towards a first England cap and later a Lions call-up. According to Harlequins senior head coach Tabai Matson, Smith is itching to start again. “He feels very positive and that’s he well rested and recovered,” Matson said. “He’s so excited about the season as you can imagine off the back of the last couple of months.”

Even with talent as exciting as Smith to work with, Matson probably has the single most daunting task of anyone heading into the new Premiership season having arrived as senior coach this summer. How do you improve on the rugby excelsior Harlequins served up in the play-offs last season?

Matson’s answer is simply that you do not. As was made clear to him in an extensive application process, which involved five rounds of interviews, Mason’s remit will be to finetune a winning formula rather than imposing his own blueprint.

“Often organisations when they go out to recruit, they try to get the best candidate,” Matson said. “What I found really interesting was that Harlequins were really clear on who they wanted as a person and where they had to go and what they had to do. How they had to get on the boat and paddle in a certain direction. They did not want me to come on board and change the direction of the boat. I think that’s the first time I have been involved in the process where they were really clear where they were going. They asked me to jump on the boat and paddle in a certain direction.”

Probably the bigger question is what happens when the winning formula ceases to be effective. Paul Gustard was previously brought in as head of rugby to address what Matson himself identified while he was coaching Bath as Harlequins “soft underbelly”. Matson believes he can stay true to the club’s principles.

“On the back of the last year, Quins were really clear on their DNA,” Matson said. “They want to stay true to that. I want to lead in the manner that they think is their DNA and their style. It is always tough when you lose and it is the way you bounce back and adjust.

“That will be our challenge. The playing group in particular are adamant they want to play in a certain way and I love that determination to be positive and intent. What we have to do to be successful is to take our game to another level being positive. Let’s have a chat in week four.”

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