England's Smith in 'masterclass' as Harlequins hammer Exeter
Marcus Smith rose to the challenge of being dropped from England's training squad ahead of a Six Nations clash against France by orchestrating Harlequins' 40-5 thrashing of Exeter on Saturday as Red Rose boss Steve Borthwick looked on from the stands.
The gifted fly-half showed plenty of attacking flair as Quins ran in six tries in a 'Big Game' match played at Twickenham, the venue for the March 11 'Le Crunch' against Six Nations champions France, rather than Quins' nearby Stoop ground.
Smith, 24 was directly responsible for two of those tries and was off target with just one of his conversions as Quins, who saw Cadan Murley, Josh Bassett, Sam Riley and Joe Marchant (twice) cross Exeter's line, ended a run of five consecutive defeats in the English Premiership.
Victory also saw Quins surge from ninth to fifth place, with the top four at the end of the regular season qualifying for the title-deciding play-offs.
- 'Masterclass' -
"Marcus has come in, he knows what he needs to do," said Harlequins coach Tabai Matson.
"What you saw is a guy that can find space, run, pass or kick."
He added: "What you saw was a masterclass in finding space. That's the best thing he could've done, he did what Steve asked of him -- he bossed the game and made it difficult.
"I think he'll be in the mix (to play against France), he can do no more."
England coach Borthwick must now decide whether Smith should be recalled at No 10 instead of captain Owen Farrell for a fourth-round clash with Les Bleus.
The kicking form of veteran fly-half Farrell, who can also play at inside centre, has become an increasing concern, with Smith's touchline conversion of Marchant's second try a reminder of his value off the tee.
Farrell, however, has also formed an effective Test midfield partnership with inside centre Ollie Lawrence that offers defensive solidity but arguably less attacking threat than if Smith is at fly-half.
Smith showed his class against Exeter with a dummy that deceived the onrushing Chiefs' defence and also made a mark in defence with a fine tackle on the visitors' hard-charging Wales back-row Christ Tshiunza.
His ability to create something from seemingly nothing was also evident when, with little on just outside Harlequins' 22, Smith's deft chip over the top allowed Andre Esterhuizen to send Murley in at the other end for a try.
Smith was England's fly-half in their opening Six Nations defeat by Scotland before being dropped to the bench, with Farrell the starting stand-off for the wins over Italy and Wales.
And Smith was the only member of England's match-day 23 that enjoyed a 20-10 win against Wales in Cardiff last weekend to be left out of a 26-man training squad in Brighton, with Borthwick including veteran Sale fly-half George Ford in that camp.
In Saturday's other Premiership match, Argentina hooker Julian Montoya scored two tries and South Africa World Cup-winning fly-half Handre Pollard 21 points as Leicester moved into the top four with a 48-27 win at home to Bath.