How England kept Marcus Smith at heart of Six Nations campaign while injured

Marcus Smith takes part in a England rugby training session at Pennyhill Park on March 4

This seemed to be the Six Nations for Marcus Smith to seize England’s fly-half berth definitively. The original apprentice looked ready to go full-time, and circumstances were obliging rather nicely.

Owen Farrell, who had appeared set to continue as a leader of Steve Borthwick’s set-up, announced at the end of November he was withdrawing from national service. From there, Smith began to build a strong case.

He would later admit that his return to Harlequins, following a World Cup spent training predominantly as a surprise full-back, was tricky. After losses to Saracens and Northampton Saints, a 36-3 thrashing of Sale Sharks felt salient. Smith eclipsed his opposite man, George Ford, with a clever kicking display that was illuminated by sparks of magic. A week later, he inspired an away win over Racing 92 with another fine performance.

There were wobbles – Harlequins lost to Toulouse and Bath on consecutive weekends – but it is understood that Borthwick wanted to name both Smiths in his match-day squad for the Six Nations opener in Rome, with Marcus starting and the 21-year-old Fin on the bench. England’s in-house documentary, This Rose, captured the Monday meeting in Girona at which the team was read out. Smith was sitting next to Henry Slade and close to Borthwick.

However, he would injure his calf that day in training. Plans were altered again. Ford, a safe pair of hands to off-set inexperience elsewhere, was parachuted into the starting role he has retained since. But there has been a concerted attempt to keep Marcus Smith involved as much as possible.

On Valentine’s Day, which doubled up as his 25th birthday, Smith was mentioned at the bottom of a Rugby Football Union press update to follow England’s narrow defeat of Wales. He would be heading to Pennyhill Park to continue his rehabilitation; a promising sign.

Although his part in England’s open training session at Twickenham on Februaty 16 was conspicuously light – Smith spent a lot of it stretching with Bob Stewart, the team’s medical lead, in a dead-ball area – he gave a pitch-side interview and met supporters. On a later episode of This Rose, he popped up watching Love Island with Tom Roebuck, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. During another, Smith and Ben Earl are captured chatting in the Pennyhill Park spa.

Prior to the Calcutta Cup game, while Jamie George spoke so movingly about the death of his mother, Jane, the England captain mentioned Smith.

“My mum was probably the biggest England rugby fan there could ever be,” George told the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast.

“I take great joy in the fact that she had a lot of happiness following me around the world watching me play rugby. Any opportunity I’d have to get out of camp, I’d go to visit her and the conversations we’d be having were like, ‘How’s Marcus Smith getting on? How’s his calf?’”

Entire Quins 8-9-10 combination among replacements

The heart-wrenching anecdote carried a noteworthy point; that Smith is a recognisable figure who has become dear to many England supporters. Of course that should not sway selection, as much as he and Danny Care are sure to rouse Twickenham on Saturday if and when they arrive from the bench, especially with the latter winning his 100th cap.

There is also a sense that Smith has served his probation. Interestingly, a call-up for Alex Dombrandt makes it the entire Harlequins 8-9-10 combination among the replacements.

Eddie Jones often compared him to Richie Mo’unga, another darting runner, and preached that he would grow more assured and influential the longer he spent in Test matches. Smith now has 30 caps, a solid foundation reflective of Jones’s investment in him, and has shown signs of rounding out his game.

So far this Premiership campaign, according to Stats Perform, Smith is averaging 333 kicking metres per 80 minutes, up from 266 last season and 259 in 2021-22. That puts him second by that metric among all fly-halves across the league, with only Ford (348) ahead of him. Incidentally, Alex Mitchell tops the Premiership log, with a whopping 496 kicking metres per 80 minutes.

Smith has aimed to peg back opponents and tease defences with his boot, but his running has been more potent than ever. He is averaging 62 metres and 4.7 beaten defenders per 80 minutes with ball in hand this Premiership season, racking up more than 13 carries per game. All of these attacking figures are up on last term. He remains an elusive threat from the back-field and on the gain line.

Fin Smith has an extremely exciting future. His unruffled, accurate display at a wet and windy Thomond Park, as Northampton ousted Munster in January, oozed class. Ford, equally, will feel as though he has plenty to offer. It is discombobulating to remind yourself that the Sale string-puller, a veteran of 94 caps, is just 30 years old.

Another calf issue for Fin has led to Ford and Marcus Smith occupying Borthwick’s squad against Ireland. Ford and Smith were photographed at training on Monday with a menu of calls, presumably denoting set-piece strike moves, scrawled on their hands.

Marcus Smith at training on Monday with a menu of calls scrawled on his hand
Smith at training on Monday with a menu of calls scrawled on his hand - PA/Zac Goodwin

Kevin Sinfield heralded Marcus Smith’s off-field impact earlier this week, citing his “big smile” and a certain “bounce” about his demeanour. Sinfield said that Smith has been “a voice within meetings” while always staying true to himself. This is impossible to quantify, but one wonders whether the perception of a new beginning for England would have been different – specifically more optimistic and patient – with Smith as the front-line fly-half and therefore one of the faces of a new World Cup cycle.

Borthwick has been unfortunate in that regard, which is no sleight on Ford, who rescued the side against Wales in round two with a superb 50:22. Smith can also learn from his senior colleague’s defence. According to Stats Perform, Ford’s tackle completion rate is superior to that of Smith over their respective England careers (87 per cent to 77 per cent). Ford has made 24 tackles and missed two this Six Nations and, while the vast majority have ceded ground, he has also forced three turnovers.

Felix Jones will no doubt urge Marcus Smith, who has become more tenacious and committed in defence over recent years, to use his acceleration to pressurise attackers, as Manie Libbok does for South Africa. When Smith is reintroduced to the Test arena, everything will be under the microscope. That said, he is just the sort of presence capable of energising England as well.

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