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Jonny Wilkinson’s role in teaching Marcus Smith to become bulletproof | England rugby union team

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Jonny Wilkinson (left) works with Marcus Smith as England’s kicking consultant but also provides a mentoring role.

Marcus Smith is talking about his haircut. Some of his family love it, others think it is time for a change. It is likely to stay for now but Smith is not ruling anything out if it gets too long and starts affecting his performance. All pretty banal stuff and barely worth mentioning but for the manner in which he dealt with the question.

There is no bashfulness, no awkwardness about discussing his appearance. Just an enthusiastic, well-rounded response that gives little away. Smith turned 23 on Monday, he has only seven England caps to his name but already seems to have mastered the art of engaged deflection.

In that sense he epitomises the modern sporting star. He will encounter all the trappings of fame that Eddie Jones was so eager to highlight in the autumn but so far has appeared on front pages for only positive reasons. He is the poster boy of Jones’s “new England” project and his level of exposure has never been higher, such is the glare of the spotlight during the Six Nations, when free-to-air broadcasters ensure rugby union’s profile is at its highest.

Smith’s determination to keep his feet on the ground, however, is matched only by that to master his craft. He is no longer the apprentice with an asterisk by his name, rather a senior figure in the England squad and someone around whom to build a team, although he still understands his role when it comes to making the tea. It helps that he has been working closely with Jonny Wilkinson, someone who never felt comfortable in the spotlight and carried what was at times an unmanageable weight of expectation throughout his career. But for Smith, family comes first and it is at home where he gets a regular dose of reality.

“The other week I did a drop goal that didn’t go above the bar, and that was the first thing my brothers said to me – they were laughing their heads off, peppering me with images and videos of it,” says Smith. “If I start getting too big for my boots my parents will step in and tell me I am going down the wrong path, that I am not Marcus any more. My brothers, the sacrifices they have made for me and my career have been immense.”

Those sacrifices made by brothers Luc and Tomas include sidelining their own rugby pursuits in the interests of Smith’s. Half-Filipino, Smith grew up in Singapore playing junior rugby for Centaurs RFC, for whom tour destinations included Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne. “Those two wouldn’t play for their own teams because they’d want to watch me,” recalls Smith. “They would travel to Australia to support me. I’ve got to credit a lot of it to them. I don’t know how they sacrificed those weekends watching me – it was probably pretty boring to watch. It was extremely special. It allowed us to travel as a family and stick together as a tight-knit group.”

So in the midst of a Six Nations tournament in which Smith has already sparkled, scoring 60% of England’s points to date, is he noticing any extra attention? “I try to keep all this external stuff out of my eyesight,” he says. “You hear about it and sometimes see it but I try to keep my distance. I am still able to go for coffee and Nando’s on my days off. I don’t get hassled too much, it is not football.”

What strikes most about Smith, beyond the obvious talent, is his tunnel vision. His ability to reset, to just play the next point as it were.Jones has suggested it was not always the case but, as he starred in Harlequins’ miraculous Premiership title win last season, then made his England debut, got whisked away to join the British & Irish Lions and then installed as Jones’s first-choice fly-half, outwardly at least he betrayed no temptation to stop and smell the roses. Wilkinson, one senses, plays a key part in that.

‘Every time I meet him I leave our session with a new breath of life,” says Smith. “He teaches me a lot, not just about rugby, not just about kicking but a way of living your life and a way of being when pressure comes on, when pressure’s not on, when things go your way, when things don’t go your way. If you can learn to control those sorts of things you eventually become bulletproof, which is where he was towards the latter stages of his career. When things go well it is never as good as it seems and when things go badly it is never as bad as it seems. It is something that you have got to experience the easy way or the hard way. Touch wood, luckily so far it hasn’t been any stress on me and I am happy and enjoying my life at the minute.”

And what about making the tea? “My dad told me he used to do them when he first started working at an estate agent as well as my mum when she worked at Cathay Pacific,” he adds. “I’m still doing the tea round. I’m actually going to have a cup of tea with Manu Tuilagi tonight, and a shortbread, if we are lucky. Out in Jersey, when I roomed with him, we had a lot of tea nights together. I obviously made them; he was on his bed playing chess.”

As England prepare to face Wales at Twickenham next Saturday, how Smith links with Tuilagi – assuming he comes straight back into the side – is likely to be crucial to how England perform. Smith was a 12-year-old supporter in the Twickenham stands when Tuilagi scored his first England try against Wales. Lining up next to him in the white heat of an England v Walesbattle is now Smith’s next test. On current form one would back him to pass it.

Jonny Wilkinson (left) works with Marcus Smith as England’s kicking consultant but also provides a mentoring role.
Jonny Wilkinson (left) works with Marcus Smith as England’s kicking consultant but also provides a mentoring role. Photograph: Matt Impey/REX/Shutterstock

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