Marcus Smith puts in masterclass during another audition for Owen Farrell's role

Marcus Smith of Harlequins scores his sides first try
Marcus Smith was too much for Racing 92 to handle - Shutterstock/James Marsh

Racing 28 Harlequins 31

All the talk this week might have been about Henry Arundell’s decision to extend his stay with Racing 92 and rule him out of England contention for the foreseeable future – exclusively revealed by Telegraph Sport – but it was another English prodigy, Marcus Smith, who ended Sunday night with the keys to Paris.

In yet another thriller played out at the indoor La Défense arena between these two sides after last season’s epic, Harlequins’ bonus-point victory against Stuart Lancaster’s league-leading French aristocrats capped off a marvellous weekend for the Premiership. Only Saracens, away in Pretoria, lost in the Champions Cup this weekend and the emotion of Alex Dombrandt at the final whistle told its own story. The captain could not have screamed louder, sprinting over to the cluster of visiting fans at full time. The No 8’s side at one stage led by 10, then trailed by 11, and eventually won by three. A rollercoaster.

“I’ve been at the club nearly six years and that is up there with one of the gutsiest wins,” said director of rugby Billy Millard. “They’re all heroes for me. There were a couple of boys who had to play through injury or illness. They put themselves on the line and I’m really proud of them.”

Millard heralded the “outstanding” Smith, before Dombrandt added: “He is a special player, but we had to bring all aspects of our game to the party. He can create something out of nothing and to have him in your team gives you loads of confidence.”

In attack, Smith fizzed and fluttered with his customary vibrancy, but it was the game management, organisation and lack of errors which made this performance a stand-out. Smith, with 16 points, was 100 per cent off the tee; his first-half 45-metre drop-goal was a peach – as was his touch-finder for Jack Walker’s winning try – and there was a try-saving tackle on Juan Imhoff to throw into the mix.

This felt like the day on which the 24-year-old came of age, with the England fly-half jersey up for grabs owing to Owen Farrell’s period on the international sidelines.

Not that Smith was alone. The two Wills – Evans and Joseph – were sensational for Harlequins, the former terrorising the Racing 92 breakdown and outplaying even the great Siya Kolisi at openside.

As so often happens in this stadium and as so often happens with Quins, this was a match of ultra freneticism. It almost seemed as though Harlequins revelled more in the La Défense indoor atmosphere than the hosts. Maybe they should swap stadiums for a season?

There were three holding-on penalties in the first seven minutes; in the opening 10, Harlequins twice turned down kickable penalties to go to the corner (in vain). There were times, too, when it seemed as though Danny Care was quick-tapping penalties before they had even been awarded. And when Racing 92’s two brass bands started up in competition - one with an arrangement of Alice Deejay, the other with Lady Gaga - the match descended into a carnival-esque assault on the senses.

Harlequins' English scrum-half Danny Care runs with the ball during the European Champions Cup first round first day group A Rugby Union match between Racing92 and Harlequins at the Paris La Defense Arena in Nanterre on December 10, 2023
Danny Care was a constant thorn in the side of Racing with his sniping runs - Getty Images/Miguel Medina

The rugby matched, too. Arundell, fittingly, with his first touch kicked what was the equivalent of a 50:22 – except Racing 92 had passed the ball back into their own half. Despite the goings-on behind the scenes this week, the English full-back could not have shown more sangfroid early on even if he struggled to fully assert himself later on.

From the off, Smith opened his box of tricks. The chips and dinks troubled Racing 92 and, in concert with Joseph, the French aristocrats were troubled in the midfield.

That said, the hosts did strike first. Care had a try disallowed for a harsh Dino Lamb double movement, and moments later Harlequins trailed. Kolisi combined effortlessly with Cameron Woki, the France lock feeding Le Garrec on the inside to score.

But Quins and Smith were not fazed. First, the fly-half sold a dummy to leave Kolisi, Le Garrec and Gael Fickou for dead – not a bad castlist – before André Esterhuizen blasted through a woeful attempted Fickou tackle to canter over from distance. Smith’s drop-goal rounded off a stunning passage for the hosts.

It was the period directly before and after half time where Harlequins wobbled, however, with Gibert’s try stalling the visitors’ momentum. When Ibrahim Diallo carried like a truck and Le Garrec darted under the posts, Harlequins had relinquished a 10-point lead to find themselves trailing by four, in two match minutes.

And when neither Dombrandt nor Lamb could stop Diallo from bustling over, securing Racing 92’s bonus point, it looked as if Harlequins’ race was run.

But it just never is with Smith on the prowl.

Esterhuizen tunnelled straight into the Racing midfield, Walker’s decoy run bamboozled Racing and Dombrandt had the pace to finish. Smith’s conversion made it a four-point game before his sublime touch-finder laid the platform for Walker’s maul try. Harlequins, suddenly, in the topsy-turviest of matches, had a three-point buffer. With Lamb in the sin bin, the visitors held on, with Evans’ tackle on Cedate Gomes Sa forcing the knock-on which sealed a famous win.