Har­lequins have a star in Smith but they must not rush his devel­op­ment

Young fly-half is a thrilling tal­ent but now is the time for him to watch and learn from those around him

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - SIR IAN McGEECHAN re­spec­tive

Rugby has changed enor­mously since I made my se­nior de­but in the mid-1960s. Ev­ery­thing is big­ger, most no­tably the play­ers, of course. I was 5ft 10in and 11st drip­ping wet when I turned out for Head­in­g­ley against Water­loo in 1964. I was still a school­boy. I ac­tu­ally played for Aller­ton Grange Comp be­fore mak­ing my se­nior de­but later that day.

Nowa­days you just could not do that. Mar­cus Smith has come pretty close, though. The young Har­lequins fly-half, who has an­other chance to show what he can do when Quins travel to Wasps this af­ter­noon, is a bit of a throw­back to my era in terms of his size and his age and the fact that he has only just left Brighton Col­lege.

Born in the Philip­pines, raised in Sin­ga­pore and schooled in Eng­land, the 18-year-old is clearly a hot prospect. I have not seen a huge amount of him but peo­ple I trust tell me he is a tremen­dous tal­ent. Ed­die Jones has al­ready brought him into the wider Eng­land squad to look at him.

This is such a cru­cial time in his devel­op­ment, though, and it is so im­por­tant not to rush things. The han­dling has to be ab­so­lutely spot on, now more than ever be­cause Smith will be do­ing the bulk of his de­vel­op­ing un­der an in­tense me­dia spot­light. He will rely hugely on the pro­tec­tion and guid­ance of those around him.

That is ac­tu­ally one thing that has not changed in the past 50 years.

In one of my first games for Head­in­g­ley, against Sale, I re­mem­ber my op­po­site man was an Eng­land in­ter­na­tional, Bill Pat­ter­son, who was a fair bit big­ger than I was (which is not say­ing much – the heav­i­est I ever got in my ca­reer was 12st 3oz on the 1974 Lions Tour when we were eat­ing steaks every day).

But I was lucky I had very ex­pe­ri­enced guys in­side me and out­side me: Peter John­son at scrumex­cep­tional half and Keith Sut­cliffe at full-back and some­times 12. They kept my feet firmly on the ground and got me out of trou­ble on numer­ous oc­ca­sions.

When you look at the play­ers around Smith, you could not ask for much more. He is al­most at the per­fect club in Quins. Danny Care at nine, Jamie Roberts at 12, Mike Brown at 15. A per­fect tri­an­gle of ex­pe­ri­ence. Roberts is an out­let in any sit­u­a­tion. A ‘just give me the ball’ cen­tre. Care will do a lot of the kick­ing in the tight sit­u­a­tions. Brown at full-back can come up and take the ball at first re­ceiver.

It is not just the play­ers, though, it is ev­ery­one at the club. You need a con­certed ef­fort, from the con­di­tion­ers, to the phys­ios, to the coaches (Nick Evans, now that he is coach­ing, will be cru­cial to Smith), to strike the right bal­ance. I think be­cause of my back­ground as a teacher, the devel­op­ment of young play­ers is an area I was al­ways par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated by.

At Wasps and at Northamp­ton, where I helped to set up the academy, we used to look at other set-ups around the world and copy their best bits.

I still take a keen in­ter­est now. When I was down in New Zealand for the Lions tour I got talk­ing to the Welling­ton Hur­ri­canes coaches about Jordi Bar­rett, Beau­den’s younger brother, who played in the third Lions

Test. They are in this area in New Zealand; very con­scious of the need not to over­play their young stars.

In a good player-devel­op­ment process, Smith and oth­ers like him should have a play­ing pro­gramme of 16-20 games in a sea­son, es­pe­cially if the sea­son is ever ex­tended to 11 months, as has been mooted (clearly by a com­mit­tee who have never played rugby at the high­est level). Quins may be tempted to play him more, es­pe­cially if he is play­ing well and given the in­jury to Demetri Ca­trak­ilis. But get some cover in. Smith is still learn­ing. He is also still grow­ing. His mus­cles, his ten­dons, his lig­a­ments, his bones.

Of course, play­ing at such a young age is eas­ier in some po­si­tions than oth­ers. Fly-half, for all that it is a piv­otal po­si­tion tac­ti­cally, is ac­tu­ally one of them. There is not such a need to be phys­i­cally huge. And you can be looked af­ter in a way that you could not in the front row, for in­stance, where it would not be safe to ex­pose an 18-year-old to reg­u­lar rugby.

I would look to play Smith in blocks of two or three games then sit him out for a game or two. Give him time to re­cover and an­a­lyse his per­for­mances. You learn so much from watch­ing. I re­mem­ber when Danny Cipri­ani – an­other prodi­giously tal­ented school­boy player – made his Premier­ship de­but for Wasps. He played at 10 be­cause Alex King was in­jured. But I took him off at half­time and did not pick him again for three or four weeks. He was mak­ing de­ci­sions for him­self rather than for the team. He took it on board, and when we brought him back in it was at full-back.

He spent the rest of that de­but sea­son at full-back and we won the European Cup with him there. The next sea­son Danny was back to 10 and was out­stand­ing un­til his an­kle break. By co­in­ci­dence Smith is likely to be up against Cipri­ani to­day. It is go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing match-up.

Wasps have a lot of in­juries but they are a qual­ity team with a tremen­dous home record. It should give us a clearer idea of where Quins – and Smith – are in their de­vel­op­ments.

I would look to play Smith in blocks of two or three games then let him re­cover and an­a­lyse

Hot prospect: Mar­cus Smith has im­pressed Ed­die Jones

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