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
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