The last time the British & Irish Lions played a Test series in South Africa in 2009, a 10-year-old boy was watching spellbound with his father in Singapore. He absolutely loved the colour, the spectacle and the drama and promised himself that, one day, he would go on a Lions tour as well.
Twelve years on and Marcus Smith’s dreams are coming true all at once. A thrilling Premiership final win with Harlequins, his first England caps and a Lions call-up inside the same fortnight is some sporting harvest and the good news keeps coming. Far from holding tackle bags, the 22-year-old will wear the red No 10 jersey on Saturday and could yet have a part to play in the Tests.
If untimely injuries to others have played their part, the Lions’ head coach, Warren Gatland, clearly has complete faith in his new arrival. The original idea was to ease him in off the bench but, with Dan Biggar being preserved for the first Test next week, the management are confident he will swim rather than sink.
“There’s no doubt he’s got some real attacking prowess, he’s matured significantly and we’re really excited about him having an opportunity to start,” Gatland said. “The message to him is just to go out there, enjoy the occasion, make the most of it and make a few people sit up and take notice.”
Smith’s British father, Jeremy, met his mother, Suzanne, while working in Hong Kong and Marcus, who was born in the Philippines, did not live in the UK until he was 13. His first Lions memories, even so, remain vivid. “I remember watching with my dad. I was 10 years old and I loved it.
“I remember being excited about how loud the stadiums were and the sea of red of fans who travelled to South Africa. Obviously the series outcome was disappointing but it was a massive spectacle and it made me really desperate to get on one in the future.”
Now he has done so, the challenge is to display the same clear-eyed vision he has been exhibiting all year. The Lions may well need something different to break down a well‑marshalled South African defence and, with Russell struggling to overcome a damaged achilles tendon, a little sprinkle of Smith magic could help.
“It’s always been the ambition to play at the highest level. It is every kid’s dream to play in a Lions Test series in South Africa. I would love to be involved in that, but my main focus is getting a chance this weekend: give the ball to the outside backs, organise the forwards and, if I get a bit of space, have a go myself.”
It is more than a touch ironic that, opposite him in a Stormers shirt, will be the former Quins fly-half Tim Swiel who also featured in Smith’s club debut in 2017. The latter has spent a fair amount of time over the years, too, in the company of Kyle Sinckler and Tom Curry, both of whom will surely advise him simply to be himself.
The England head coach, Eddie Jones, has also been offering some sage advice. “He just congratulated me and then said: ‘Go out there, learn as much as you can and come back a better player.’ So I’ll try and do that.”
Nor does the prospect of colliding with assorted pumped-up Springboks faze him. “They are very aggressive, they like their niggly stuff. But when I can have a go against the big boys I will back myself and see what happens. We have spoken about their physicality but it is nothing we can’t handle. We are excited for the challenge.”