Premiership Rugby

Marcus Smith Stakes His Claim With Dominant Harlequins Performance

Marcus Smith Stakes His Claim With Dominant Harlequins Performance

Marcus Smith is set to start for England following a dominant display in Harlequins victory over the Exeter Chiefs in the big game at Twickenham Stadium.

Mar 9, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Marcus Smith Stakes His Claim With Dominant Harlequins Performance

Marcus Smith gave Steve Borthwick plenty to think about with a stunning Player of the Match display for Harlequins against Exeter Chiefs in the latest installment of the Big Game.

The young flyhalf was released from England camp to get precious game time ahead of the next round of the Six Nations.

Initially it appeared Smith had been dropped, but subsequent reports revealed Borthwick was in fact challenging the youngster to push for a starting role against France next weekend.

“Marcus has had limited game time the last two or three weeks,” said Borthwick.

“The clear thought to it and the feeling I have for him is that match sharpness, getting in a 10 shirt, boss a game, boss the team and reassemble with us on Sunday afternoon.”

In any event, Smith took to the Twickenham turf with a clear object in mind and performed his duties to perfection, marshalling the Harlequins attack as they ran out 40-5 winners against the ascending Exeter Chiefs.

Heading into the tie, the London club were five games without a win in the league, leaving them eighth in the table.

The absence of Smith, who before this weekend had featured in just four league games after missing the majority through injury or international call-ups, has greatly impacted Harlequins’ vacuous form.

But his fifth league appearance was one to remember and gave Borthwick a healthy new fly-half conundrum.

Smith’s game time has been decreasing rapidly through each round of the Six Nations, reaching new heights when he made a 14 second cameo against Wales last Saturday. But after Owen Farrell failed to ignite the action at the Principality and surprisingly struggled in his goal kicking, the door has been left open for a fresh face to come in.

Whether Smith’s Big Game extravaganza was enough to earn him the starting stripes remains to be seen, but he could have done little more to persuade the international coaches of his readiness.

After all, the contest at Twickenham was evenly poised through the opening ten minutes before Smith took charge and chipped a kick of indelible delicacy over the Exeter defence.

As the ball soared behind the wall of white shirts, André Esterhuizen scurried behind to collect possession and drew a tackler before offloading to Cadan Murley, who was also returning from the England setup. The winger then showed a clean pair of heels as he scampered to the line.

Harlequins were away, looking like the Harlequins of old and Smith was at the centre of it all, pulling the strings expertly just as he’d done two years prior on the same turf where he raised the Premiership title.

He had more of a supporting role in the next Quins score, which came from a brilliantly executed backs move, sending winger Josh Bassett - who returned to the field following an early yellow for a deliberate knock on - over the whitewash untouched.

The third try came courtesy of history maker Danny Care, who was making his 266th Premiership appearance, incidentally overtaking Borthwick to become the second most capped player ever in the league.

And to celebrate the occasion, he produced an extraordinary behind-the-back offload while being tackled into touch, setting up Sam Riley for the score.

Harlequins didn’t stop there and claimed a bonus-point before the break with a typically thrilling end-to-end score, finished by Joe Marchant to give the hosts a 26-0 halftime lead.

Having struggled to contain their opponents for the majority of the first 40, Exeter emerged from the tunnel with newfound energy and soon got on the scoresheet through Jack Innard who tumbled over the line from the base of a rolling maul.

That would be the first and last points they were to score as Harlequins soon after resumed their rampaging run as Marchant grabbed his second of the day, touching down a loose ball in the corner, benefitting from another sublime Care assist – this time off the boot.

The emphatic end result was confirmed when Stephan Lewies finished off from a rolling maul, giving Exeter a taste of their own medicine. The six-try thumping gave Harlequins a much-needed boost in their hunt for a playoff spot come the end of the season.

But the story post-match was all about Smith. As the youngster stepped up to collect a medal for his on-field display, the message was clear.

Borthwick, over to you.

Dropping Farrell to make way for Smith is a big call, especially since the Saracens star is team captain, but it’s a decision which feels far from impossible.

Borthwick has shown he prefers not to play a 10-12 axis of Farrell and Smith, particularly when Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade are quickly developing a well-balanced relationship in the midfield.

And this week England will have to match the high tempo attacking frivolity of the French. With Smith they can fight fire with fire, doing similar to what the Scots did in Paris in round three.

The ball is in Borthwick’s court, but time is ticking. 

Written by Stefan Frost