Marcus Smith could have been lost to the English game after Lyon president Yann Roubert revealed the French club held talks about signing the Harlequins fly-half 12 months ago.
This year, Smith has established himself as the face of Eddie Jones’ "New England" project having guided Harlequins to the Premiership title, earned his first international start and been called up to the British & Irish Lions tour. Yet 12 months ago, the picture was very different. Despite being Jones’ original "apprentice", Smith was firmly out of the England picture and had grown disillusioned at Harlequins under Paul Gustard.
Bath made a strong push to land the 22-year-old but notice of his availability had reached the French market. With his England prospects seemingly closed, Telegraph Sport understands that Smith was strongly considering a move across the Channel at one stage. Had he moved to France, he would have been unavailable for England selection under the terms of the Rugby Football Union’s deal with Premiership Rugby.
In the end, Smith was persuaded by close advisors to stay at the Stoop where he has flourished in 2021 and since been adopted as the darling of Twickenham. Yet, in a sliding doors moment, Roubert says Lyon were firmly in the hunt for Smith’s signature. “It could have been a possibility,” Roubert told Telegraph Sport. “One French agent told us that he was available and we had been following him so we knew he was a good player. What he did this autumn proved us right; unfortunately for us, fortunately for him.
“We had some initial talks. We understood before we made an offer or proposed a contract that he had to choose if he was ready to leave England or not. That was the first call he had to make because we did not want to be used for an auction. It has been so quick for him this year, I think he made the right choice. When you see the end of the story as you see what he has done with the national team then it was the right call to stay there.”
Instead, Lyon signed former ex-All Black Lima Sopoaga from Wasps to be their starting fly-half. The experience of missing out on Smith did not dissuade Roubert from returning to the English market and last month Lyon signed second row Joel Kpoku from Saracens. Like Smith, the 22-year-old was another of Jones’ apprentice who did not gain a full cap and whose original potential had seemingly stalled.
Lyon were originally looking in the South African and New Zealand markets for a second row only to discover that Kpoku was available, with Saracens unwilling to let their academy product join another English club. “It was a big surprise for us,” Roubert said. “We did not expect an English player with a great chance to play for a top team to be available. That’s when we heard about this possibility with Joel and we were very happy about it. We did our homework and heard lots of good things about him. I spoke to him and he made a very good impression.”
While Kpoku will be ineligible to play for England, having signed a contract through to 2023, Roubert believes the move can help unlock his rich potential. “He wants to grow up as a player,” Roubert said. “I hope he can fit. I think he knows by the 2023 World Cup he will not be in Eddie Jones’ plans so he can play for us for two years and if he sees he can be part of the national team again then he might consider returning to England. I don’t know how long he will stay in France. Maybe he will fall in love with Lyon the city, Lyon the club or even a French girl.”