Marcus Smith believes his Six Nations experiences with England, coping with the high-pressure visits to Paris and Murrayfield, have boosted his confidence that Harlequins can take the fight to Montpellier in the first leg of their Champions Cup last-16 tie on Sunday.
After starring for an hour in Harlequins’ 41-14 win at London Irish on Sunday, when he set up two of his team’s seven tries, the in-form Smith recognises that a squad with 14 French internationals and two World Cup winners in their ranks are not to be underestimated.
“It’s the biggest tournament in Europe for a club player,” he said. “We don’t want to just take part, we want to win the silverware. We’ve got to fight as they’re a brilliant team and they’re going to throw everything at us.”
Montpellier are top of the French Top 14 but stumbled into the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition, finishing seventh in their group. Quins won all four of their pool games but Smith knows they will have to raise their game.
“I know it’ll be the best version of Montpellier,” he said. “As a group we’re excited for that challenge. We’ll try to take them out of their comfort zone and throw something at them they haven’t seen before.
“That’s the one positive of this group. We’re not fazed by anyone, we back ourselves as individuals and as a group. We’ll work hard this week to put out a cohesive performance, and try to score as many points [as we can] then worry about the second leg. If we can go down there and score four tries we give ourselves a brilliant chance coming back to the Stoop.”
The confidence Smith so effortlessly exudes is what has endeared him to the English public and his dazzling skillset carried Harlequins to a thrilling Premiership victory last year. However, a disappointing return in the Six Nations offered valuable lessons that can only be derived from defeat.
“I learned a lot from playing in high-pressure environments like away at Murrayfield and away in France,” Smith said, recalling two of the three losses that consigned England to third in the championship. “They were both tough places to go and I learned a lot of lessons about myself, as well as how we can improve as a group.
“First and foremost about my mentality going to these places. You get a lot of stick as an Englishman at Murrayfield. I didn’t realise. Maybe I was a bit naive going up there and thinking it would be plain sailing. It was a tough Test match.
“I learned about how to control myself in big moments, pressure moments, which I will try to bring back here, hopefully for knockout games with Harlequins.”
Along with Eddie Jones’s overall strategy, England’s attack was heavily criticised after the tournament. Smith said he took that to heart as the team’s fly-half, which is why he has relished his return to the familiar environment of his club.
“When I first came back after our week off, the energy was brilliant, the vibe was brilliant and it was a pleasure to be back,” he said, crediting the recent break he took in Dubai after his time with England. “It took me a couple of days in training to get the calls right and get the timing right off the boys.”
His relationship with Danny Care inside him, as well as with the aggressive ball-carriers off his shoulder in Alex Dombrandt and André Esterhuizen, came to the fore against Irish. That 8-9-10-12 axis has been at the heart of Harlequins’ recent success. Add in Joe Marchant, a constant threat running a spate of threatening lines, and the reigning Premiership champions have one of the most potent attacks in Europe.
“It was an absolute joy to step back into training and play the Quins way, which is what I’ve been doing since I was 14,” Smith said of the free-flowing rugby that has become a hallmark of a team whose style is the antithesis of England under Jones.