Marcus Smith playing for Brighton College, England and Singapore Barbarians
Three stages of Marcus Smith’s rugby life – with Brighton College, England and Singapore Barbarians
Venue: Twickenham, London Date: Saturday, 13 November Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

His supporters say Marcus Smith plays unlike any other fly-half England have produced in a generation.

Maybe it is because his backstory is also unlike any other.

It includes a focus on skills, rather than scores, in South Asia, permission to chance his arm on England’s south coast and an early opportunity to toughen up his teenage game in south London.

This Saturday, against Australia, Smith will lead England from 10 for the first time in a full-on Test. It could be the start of a new future for the team.

If so, this is the history behind it.

‘I just remember the reaction on the touchlines’

Marcus Smith
A 10-year-old Smith (beneath the trophy) picking up silverware during his days in Singapore

Paul Stephens was one of Smith’s earliest coaches, teaching him, alongside others, when he was playing for Centaurs’ under-eights team in Singapore.

“He could do things that other kids couldn’t at that age,” Stephens told BBC Sport.

“He had very good hand-eye co-ordination, he could turn on a sixpence. He always had a sidestep, even if the goosestep came later!

“But also he could envisage doing things that other kids wouldn’t think about.”

A prime example came a few years later in Melbourne. Smith, playing at under-12 level, was on tour in Australia.

“Marcus was playing at fly-half and put up a crossfield bomb for his younger brother Luc [who now plays for third-tier Rosslyn Park] to run onto and score,” remembered Stephens.

“That sort of thing is quite commonplace now. Ten years ago, it really wasn’t. Certainly not at under-12s. I just remember the reaction from the touchlines.

“It was not something we had taught him. It was something he had picked up from watching Australian Rugby League – the NRL.”

Centaurs provided a perfect environment for such experimentation. The emphasis was on handling, skills and unlocking defences, rather than weekly results. It was a chance for a young player to try things out.

“There were really only two teams in Singapore back then, so we spent most weekends training for two or three tournaments a season,” Stephens said.

“Kids can work on basic skills more that way than if you are playing games all the time.

“They all got a head start in terms of ball handling and passing, because that was what we did out of necessity every weekend.”

Smith’s talent may have been super-sized, but his ego wasn’t.

“He never had the mindset to lord it over other kids,” said Stephens.

“On television now you see a very polite, grounded young man and that really is it with him.

“He is still in touch with a lot of those guys he played with back here. They are his mates who he played rugby with. He just happened to be a lot better than most of them.”

‘You need to come and look at this’

Marcus Smith playing for Brighton College
Smith played for Brighton’s first XV for three years, winning the player of the tournament award at the prestigious St Joseph’s Festival in his last

On a family holiday back to the UK, an 11-year-old Marcus turned up to a rugby summer camp at Brighton College, a top private school near his father’s hometown.

Not long afterwards, a phone buzzed in the pocket of Nick Buoy, the school’s director of rugby.

“A friend was running that course,” Buoy told BBC Sport. “He said: ‘Nick, I think you need to come and have a look at this.'”

In the end, that was all Buoy’s friend needed to say. As soon as Buoy arrived on the touchline, he could see the source of excitement.

He remembered: “Marcus ran past me and I just said: ‘That’s him, isn’t it?’

“The way he moved, he had an aura about him. But also he was organising people around him. For an 11-year-old, that was unusual.”

Buoy introduced himself to the Smith family and Marcus won a sports scholarship to the school a few years later.

“Marcus stood out in the way he could see a problem or a scenario and solve it very quickly – in whatever sport,” Buoy said.

“He would look at cricketers conventionally driving the ball into the covers and wonder why they didn’t aim for the gaps more.

“He would play these unorthodox strokes and ended up as the school’s top run-scorer despite spending half the summer away with England age-grade rugby.”

There were some things, though, which didn’t come naturally.

“He comes from a background when students are perhaps more used to simply accepting instructions,” said Buoy.

Eddie Jones, second from left, on the night in 2015 that he first saw Marcus Smith play. Buoy is to his left.
Eddie Jones, second from left, on the night in 2015 that he first saw Marcus Smith play. Buoy is second from the right

“We had to get him to question things a bit more, be more confident to stick his neck out, make decisions and become a leader.

“We would have him coach junior teams, run the warm-up, announce the team. That was a conscious effort on our behalf.

“Our philosophy is to run the ball. It might mean we lose more games than we might otherwise but it makes the game fun and the players learn more.

“But, partly because of that, Marcus’ kicking for touch and goal was behind the curve. We had to spend a couple of summers doing a hell of a lot of work on it.

“Jon Callard [former Bath and England full-back] did some technical stuff with him, breaking down and rebuilding his kicking action.”

By the time Smith was 16, Buoy was the one passing on the recommendation rather than getting it. To one Eddie Jones.

“Japan were based with us for two weeks before the 2015 Rugby World Cup,” Buoy added.

“We had a match on Friday night against Sussex and Eddie and a few of his guys came down to watch and relax.

“Eddie asked if there were any boys worth looking at. I said to look out for the fly-half and after 20 minutes he looked across to me and said: ‘This kid is pretty good.'”

Less than a year later, now in charge of England, Jones was back for a training camp.

Smith did an A-Level exam in the morning and 20 minutes later took up Jones’ invite to train with England.

Big breakfasts, big names

Marcus Smith with Calum Waters
Smith (left) with Waters, who captained him in a youthful Harlequins team at the Premiership Sevens event in 2016

Calum Waters went to Brighton College too, but was three years above Smith. He would see Smith hustling on the common room pool table, beating infuriated sixth-formers, or dribbling past his peers on the football pitch.

They only played rugby together for the first time as Harlequins youth prospects – Waters at nine, Smith at 10.

“He is a very measured guy to have as a team-mate,” Waters said. “He’s very switched on and astute to everything.

“He brings people with him. He praises the good things, but also picks up things that you don’t do so well.”

Smith’s dedication to the sport was never in doubt. But, coming into a professional environment, cooking for himself for the first time, his diet was.

“When you first arrive at Quins, you are fat tested,” Waters said. “The optimal level for the backs was 60 on the scale and anything below 70 was acceptable. Marcus came in at 114.

“It turned out he was cooking himself fried rice, egg and a bit of sausage for breakfast every morning, as his mum used to for him at home!

“I’m pretty sure that has changed now.”

The Harlequins dressing room contained big men and big names. Former England captain Chris Robshaw was joined by players such as Joe Marler, Mike Brown, Danny Care and Kyle Sinckler.

A professional dressing room can be an intimidating place for a teenager.

“You get tested pretty hard when you go into those environments by those who are established there,” said Waters. “They test your character.

“But Marcus’ demeanour is to always take everything his stride. He is able to laugh off things that might be hard to do. Nothing seems to faze him too much. He has always been a liked character.”

‘You are always apprehensive’

Nick Evans watching Marcus Smith kick in pre-season in August 2018
Nick Evans (left) stepped up into the Harlequins coaching staff after a illustrious playing career at fly-half for the club

Nick Evans, Harlequins’ attack coach, first heard of Smith at the tail-end of his playing days for the club.

“I was injured a fair bit in my final season and I was off doing some rehab, while training was going on,” he said.

“That day a group of academy boys had come down to train with the senior squad and see what the set-up was like.

“I was talking to the guys afterwards and they were all astonished at how this young teenage kid had come in, barking orders and moving the team round like he had been there for years.”

It wasn’t long before Smith was doing it for real.

The intention has been for an 18-year-old Smith to spend his first professional campaign as back-up to Harlequins’ South African stand-off Demetri Catrakilis.

That plan changed in the second match of the season. Catrakilis suffered a freak injury, breaking a bone in his throat, placing him on the sidelines and Smith in the limelight.

“You are always apprehensive because at that young age Marcus had only had a pre-season under his belt and couple of minutes here and there,” Evans said.

“We had to allow him to be himself but also start building the foundations and skillsets that you don’t see on highlight reels: play-calling, game management, energy conservation of the forwards, tactical awareness, how to break down defences through numbers.

“That was something that he hadn’t had to worry about in school and age-grade rugby, but on a wet night against Saracens and Sale, you can’t just run around in the middle of the field and look for a gap.

“But after the first couple of games, he looked in control.

“You never saw him shy away from making decisions, from speaking out. He never took a backward step.

“If you do that, you earn that respect. And once he had that, he could demand things from the boys – whether they are an England captain, journeyman or an academy kid.”

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