England first laid out a plan to redeploy Marcus Smith to full-back during a training camp in Verona in July. Photo: Getty Images/Dan Mullan
Owen Farrell's favorite word is “excited.” He used it 13 times at his press conference on Thursday, despite appearing visibly unexcited. The only time his face really lit up was when he was asked about how Marcus Smith's skill set could be used as a defender, where he will make his first professional start against Chile on Saturday.
This is the Smith effect. . The sense of unpredictability that sends a ripple of energy through the crowd when he's near the ball also rubs off on his teammates, including Farrell, who, according to Danny Cipriani, doesn't always welcome other midfielders into the game. fold.
Smith, however, says Farrell “always had his arm around me” and the captain is quick to return the compliment, insisting that few other players could make the transition from midfielder to full-back as quickly as The 24-year-old is Harlequins' veteran playmaker.
“No, definitely not,” Farrell said. “His ability to open up games and his athleticism to beat people and get past them and use his legs the way he does probably suits that as well. I can't speak highly enough about Marcus.
“He impresses everyone every day in training. He impresses everyone with every aspect of his game. He has the ability to open up games, which he always has, and he has the ability to control games. Doing the right things at the right time, and unlocking the game by creating something out of nothing. Not many people can go from club rugby or even European rugby to international rugby.”
The conversion plan was first hatched at a warm-weather training camp in Verona in July when defense coach Kevin Sinfield discussed it with Smith, who agreed to implement it. The strategy was then accelerated when Anthony Watson suffered a calf injury in the same week that Farrell was suspended for four matches for a dangerous tackle on Wales flanker Taine Basham.
With head coach Steve Borthwick unable to replicate the Ford-Farrell twins partnership, Smith's minutes in training at fullback increased before he was used there for the first time as a substitute in the 29-10 defeat to Ireland. In terms of physical size, there couldn't be a bigger difference between the 5-foot-9 Smith and the 6-foot-5 Freddie Steward, whose streak of 28 consecutive starts comes to an end on Saturday.
“Freddie is doing great in his terminology classes. about his work with the high ball,” Smith told the BBC 5 Live Rugby Union daily podcast. “He’s world class at this. It means a lot to me to have him on my doorstep to ask questions and get opinions on how to cover the backfield, which he does brilliantly.”
Marcus Smith starts at full-back in England's 34-12 win over Japan. Photo: AFP/Nicholas Tucat
While Steward's advice has been invaluable, Smith doesn't consider his size a barrier to full development. -back. “There are a lot of extremely short defenders in the world. Apparently in 2003 they had Jason Robinson, who was hot at the back. Mo'unga played there a bit, as did Beauden Barrett, but they weren't that great. I think I can add something a little different to the back in my own way.”
The comparison to Barrett isn't entirely accurate as he stands at 6ft 2in, but New Zealand's use of a 10-15 playmaker system shows how theory can work in practice. Harlequins are understood to have reservations about bringing Smith in at full-back, but he says playing in a different position will make him a more versatile player.
“I've tried to connect with Faz as much as possible this week and hopefully we'll build that connection between 10 & 15 so we can communicate on the field and share ideas when the game stops and find the best solution to move forward with the team,” Smith said. “It opened my eyes to what full-backs see and I think it added a layer to my game that I'm looking forward to bringing to the table this weekend.”
“Obviously, playing semi-finals where you're responsible for a lot of different aspects of the game, having a second set of eyes giving you opinions, giving you thoughts, sharing where the space is is really helpful. I've been trying to be that guy at the back, a little wider and trying to organize the strikers in different positions so I can come out at the back or get the ball in positions where I can feel dangerous and threatening or I can put our wingers in. who are excellent with the ball in their hands and in space.”
The game against Chile, ranked 22nd in the world, should give Smith the opportunity to showcase all of those skills. Whether Borthwick will repeat this experiment in the final against Samoa, let alone in the quarter-finals, remains to be seen. Nor should anyone expect England to suddenly experience a Damascus tactical conversion. “Tactical kicking” was the second feature Borthwick mentioned when he was invited to discuss Smith's qualities.
Smith also really liked the England team's pattern of heavy-kick play. “For us, especially the 10s, 15s and 9s, we want to try and dominate the area and the field. That being said, sometimes when the defense is so strong and they put a lot of players in the front line, it opens up some space in the back half. To get a better return in the next moment… or a better opportunity in the next moment, sometimes you need to roll the ball back. That means their forwards are running further, they just need to make a couple more rucks and you get a hit back.
“There's a lot of thought behind it, we don't just throw it away for the sake of it. You have to trust us and believe in us because we want to make you guys proud. We always think about it.”
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