WHAT A TRAVESTY
Marcus Smith is box office but has been binned by England. It is a terrible look for a troubled sport...
MARCUS SMITH was just 50 minutes into his comeback from injury for Harlequins in January when he conjured two tries out of thin air against Racing 92 in Paris.
It was a swift reminder of his rare, artistic brilliance. There was pace, there was footwork, there was vision and handling precision. But most of all, there was just an innate freedom of expression and a sense of daring — on the home turf of one of the superpower French clubs.
As he showed that day in Paris, in the Champions Cup, the 24-year- old fly-half is a generational talent — who is in danger of being marginalised by England, at least in the short-to-medium term. He is back at Quins, rather than training with the rest of the Red Rose squad in his home town of Brighton this week.
When France come to Twickenham in 10 days’ time, Smith is now unlikely to be on duty against them, as he appears set to be usurped by George Ford.
This is a prospect which will be loudly lamented by an English rugby public who had acclaimed the dazzling emergence of a new golden boy, with a hitch-kick calling card. All the indications now are that there is no room for his expansive repertoire and his endless exuberance. What a travesty that would be — and what a bad look for a troubled sport.
Owen Farrell is the England captain; a Test centurion and a renowned warrior. He is going nowhere. He is highly valued by his coaches as an ultimate competitor and natural leader of men, but his goal-kicking has wobbled lately and he is seen as the epitome of rigid structure and pragmatism.
Ford is worthy of a recall — that is beyond question. He is a master craftsman who expertly guided Leicester to Premiership title glory under Steve Borthwick last season. But at the age of 29, he has toned down the X-factor flashes of his youthful days as a prodigy, in the quest to bring out the best from those around him.
In a Sportsmail interview last month, Ford explained his outlook, saying: ‘Test rugby is different from just playing No 10 at Premiership level where things aren’t as challenging. You’ve got to understand the game and think more clearly at Test level — it’s not so much about the big moments or the flash moments.’
It wasn’t a mental leap to imagine he was referring to Smith within that comment, and that he may have had a point.
But the wider public crave box- office attractions and Smith had burst on to the scene as a symbol of a new era of English enlightenment. His rise to prominence was seized upon as evidence that the game was changing; becoming more liberated. Apparently not. Within elite-level rugby, fear of failure creates a fear of flair. Smith could follow in the footsteps of Danny Cipriani in being a victim of the safety- first culture which pervades the sport.
But it is not just an English mindset; it is widespread. Borthwick’s predecessor, Eddie Jones — an Australian — was only prepared to play Smith with Farrell as a counter-balance and comfort blanket. Warren Gatland was similarly cautious when he oversaw the last Lions expedition. The tourists adopted a limited gameplan until the final
Test, when Finn Russell sauntered on to replace Dan Biggar and illuminated the grand but hollow occasion in front of empty stands in Cape Town.
The great Scot has performed similar feats of instinctive genius for his country since Gregor Townsend stopped doubting him and started trusting his maverick genius to be worth the risk.
At the heart of all this is a disconnect between the masses who want to see a show and those who have a contractual obligation to win at all costs. For the head coaches and directors of rugby whose livelihoods depend on getting results, it is all about the outcome, not the means. Armwrestle tactics are adopted as readily as all-court creativity. Nobody can reasonably blame Borthwick for turning to trusted figures and trusted methods when he has an England salvage operation on his hands, and a tight deadline looming. But at a time when rugby is in the spotlight during the Six Nations, it is a wasted opportunity to engage a broad audience if an outstanding individual such as Smith is overlooked. Perhaps he doesn’t fit the standard- issue, modern rugby mould. In that case, the mould is really what needs to change, not the player. The game needs to find a way to embrace flair, not fear it.