Marcus Smith’s relationship with Owen Farrell and George Ford began at Brighton College when, as a teenager, he bolted out of a Maths exam to join an England training session.
Smith had worn his rugby socks while sitting the paper to make sure he reached the school pitches in time. “I got a B, I think,” recalled the 24-year-old in Lille on Saturday night. “Maybe I rushed it too much.”
Having shared the pitch with Farrell and Ford, the former starting at the fly-half and the latter arriving from the bench to assemble a trio of playmakers, Smith passed another examination on Saturday.Having impressed at full-back once more, he heralded England’s 71-0 win over Chile as “a dream come true”.
“Those two [Farrell and Ford] have been really influential ever since I was invited to a camp when I was very young,” said England’s auxiliary full-back. “I was very lucky that England went to Brighton College – I went to Brighton College – and I had to beg my teachers, because when I heard that opportunity was available, I was desperate to take it.
“To be able to have that when I was very young, and to learn from the best two fly-halves in England, was special for me.”
Smith scored two of his side’s 11 tries on what was his maiden World Cup start. Confirming that Smith will be considered for further involvement at full-back, both against Samoa in the last pool fixture and if England reach the knockout stages, Richard Wigglesworth suggested that a positive mentality has been vital.
“He’s a fly-half who can play full-back, and what’s so impressive about him is that he has just ripped into that role,” Wigglesworth. “He gets training time at both, but he’s ripped into this like ‘I want to get a shot, I want to have an impact at a World Cup’.
“And what an attitude for someone to have. There hasn’t been a hint of ‘oh this isn’t quite my preferred position or the one that I’ve played and played very successfully for my whole career’. He’s not done that, he has just gone, ‘let me make an impact on this team, on the players around me’ and he has been first-class.”
Danny Care, a long-time Harlequins colleague, spelled out the challenges that defences face with Smith as part of England’s back three.
“[With] any loose kicks, you’ve got someone at the back who’s going to sparkle,” explained the veteran scrum-half. “He’s probably going to run it; probably not going to kick it back. And I think he’s just great in operating in that second-, third-receiver role. We saw a couple of tries from him coming from that space out the back.
“There’s a bit more space out there, defenders’ hips are turning and Marcus’ feet out there are second to none. I think he got a couple of assists today, a couple of tries himself. It was a great performance from him. I know whatever role he’s asked to play, he’ll give it his all. He didn’t look out of place there; I‘ll say that.”
The man himself relished “running in the wider channels” and said that, with Ford and Farrell pulling the strings, “all I’ve got to do is say whether I want the ball or not.” Honed in warm-up matches against Ireland and Fiji before being used at the World Cup, the ploy would seem here to stay and Smith has been encouraged to be himself rather than to emulate any other full-backs.
“No, no, we’ve let Marcus do it the Marcus way, because from the first moment he has done it, he has looked pretty comfortable there,” Wigglesworth said. “He’s done obviously the extra high-ball work and understanding the back-field roles in that, and he’s really grabbed it himself. We want Marcus Smith to look like Marcus Smith at full-back, no one else.”