Marcus Smith is reflecting on his first full year of playing for England, highlighting the importance of building relationships with teammates he sees sporadically during the season, when his eyes light up at the mention of Manu Tuilagi. The two have made three appearances together but off the field they have long since clicked. As Tuilagi prepares for a first England outing – against Argentina on Sunday – in almost 12 months, Smith believes the side has its fear factor back.
Of their three appearances, two lasted fewer than 10 minutes and for the other Tuilagi was stationed on the wing – not that he stayed there much – but it is clear Eddie Jones craves a midfield with both of them. Their last outing together came against South Africa at the back end of last year’s November campaign but ended abruptly when Tuilagi went off with a hamstring injury sustained after seven minutes. It came in the act of scoring a try in which Smith was pivotal, a glimpse of how effectively the two can combine.
Smith has talked of how he has found the start to the current campaign difficult. He has been starring for Harlequins for a while now, having recently racked up 100 Premiership appearances, but perhaps there is an element of second-season syndrome as an international starter. Tuilagi’s presence outside him, then, is sure to help, the hamstring and knee injuries that ruled the centre out of the Six Nations and Australia tour now behind him.
“He’s an absolute beast, he’s a freak ball-in-hand, he’s got brilliant hands at the line and he bangs pretty hard in defence,” says the 23-year-old Smith. “It’s lovely to look outside and know he’s there because he’s always got my back, which is pretty special, and I think he adds a fear factor to our team. I know when I play against him I get that on a Friday night.
“Manu is a brilliant bloke, he’s always looked after me ever since I was young. He makes me feel very comfortable and like I can be myself. I love that about him.”
At the end of the triumphant series in Australia – a victory founded on defensive power and resilience above anything else – Smith spoke of the foundations being laid for the side to kick on in an attacking sense. That is, on the face of it, at odds with Jones’s insistence that at this stage, 13 matches out from the World Cup, England do not want to show their hand. For someone who plays on instinct as much as Smith, striking that balance is going to be a challenge.
“It’s a big year and in the back of everyone’s mind is the World Cup but we’re all competitive professionals and we want to win every single game,” he says. “Yes, we’re going to be working on things in training, trying new things, trying to connect over different moves and plans. We’ll try at the weekend and if we make a mistake we’ll deal with it on the field because we’re that close as a group.”
Smith finds it hard to pinpoint why he has struggled recently but maybe the plateau, which was evident on the tour of Australia, was inevitable after such a breathless start to his international career – receiving his summons to the British & Irish Lions tour before full-time in his second England appearance. If he has been struggling this season there was a welcome return to form in Harlequins’ impressive victory over Sale – the fly-half’s last club outing before joining England.
That augurs well for an autumn campaign Jones has billed as a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup. “It’s a long season and you work so hard in pre-season to hopefully hit the ground running but ultimately we’re all human and we make mistakes, we try too hard sometimes, we get a bit excited sometimes,” says Smith.
“As long as you stay pretty neutral in your thinking and work hard, I believe you can find a way out of anything. I enjoyed last week, I enjoyed the challenge of a bit of pressure, from myself as well as other pressures on me, I felt good [against Sale].”