Rugby is if not in crisis, certainly in trouble.
Premiership sides Worcester and Wasps are fighting for survival and battling severe financial trouble. The impact of head injuries on both current and former players is an issue that won’t go away. Attendances are down this season as the cost-of-living crisis bites.
The sport badly needs a shot in the arm. Thankfully for rugby’s administrators, players like Marcus Smith are around to provide a ray of hope. England and Harlequins fly-half Smith has quickly emerged as the new face of the English game. Still only 23, he is a wonderful talent.
Marcus Smith has admitted he feels a duty of responsibility to the game of rugby and its growth
But as well as guiding the ship for club and country from No 10, Smith is a player who can help attract new audiences to the game. On the field, he is a man people pay to watch.
Off it, his age and background is something which can appeal to those outside of rugby’s traditional market. Smith grew up in the Philippines and is a member of the TikTok generation.
As he sat down to preview Harlequins’ Premiership clash with Northampton on Sunday this week, Smith admitted he is more than aware of the part he needs to play in rugby’s future.
‘I feel very responsible,’ he said.
The England fly half, who has grown to become one of the sport’s foremost stars, admitted it lags a long way behind the likes of football
‘Ultimately, we are the patrons for the game at the minute. I guess the flashlight is shining on us and it’s our job to entertain and put on a show for the people who come and support.
‘Obviously it’s a problem at the moment with Worcester and potentially Wasps as well. As Quins, we’re very grateful for our owners but it also shows how fragile it (rugby) can be.
‘You have to enjoy yourself while it’s here. It’s not going to last forever and it’s our roles as players today to lift the profile and inspire the new youngsters in this country, both men and women.
‘Hopefully we can build the game and lift it to a new level.’
Eloquent and engaging, Smith sees the bigger picture. As someone who has already represented the British & Irish Lions, his status as one of rugby’s stars is unlikely to wane in the next decade.
In that sense he is fortunate as some of his Premiership compatriots cling to their jobs at clubs like the cash-strapped Worcester. Many other players have already seen their rugby employment end after the reduction of the league’s salary cap. The huge impact Covid-19 has had on the professional game remains ongoing.
The NFL was another sport that Smith cited as having stormed ahead of rugby in terms of popularity in recent years
‘You see sports like NFL, basketball and football and they are miles ahead of us so we have got some catching up to do,’ Smith said.
‘But I guess we are in a good position because we can see the model works. Hopefully we can market it in our way.
‘It’s not my job to tell other people to do more, but I guess everyone has got a responsibility to influence their circle however big or small that is.
‘If any player in this country gets any of their mates out and about watching a game of rugby, the numbers will grow rapidly. Anything we can do individually is brilliant.
The Premier League is now such a behemoth that rugby needs to find innovative ways to try and make up ground – youthful players like Smith can help
‘I think we’re in an exciting place as players today and potentially that (change) can be a thing we drive. Ultimately, you’ve got to be a good professional, a good person, a good player, and then hopefully people will follow. If that’s the case, it’s your duty to the game of rugby to do that positively and push it forward.’
Smith’s England colleague Ellis Genge echoed his calls for change earlier this week, proposing an idea of NFL-style half-time shows and musical entertainment at matches.
Another international in Northampton captain Lewis Ludlam has admitted the players of today need to do more to grow rugby’s appeal.
Smith’s popularity has come amid a miraculous rise that has seen him win caps for the British & Irish Lions
It is heartening to see these comments.
The likes of Smith, Genge and Ludlam should surely be consulted by rugby’s hierarchies – many of whom have no idea what TikTok is – on rugby’s future direction of travel.
‘If I’m asked I’ll always be open,’ Smith added.
Ellis Genge, like Smith a relatively youthful voice on the sport, has recently suggested ways the sport can grow
Lewis Ludlam is another face who youngsters coming through the ranks can look up to and relate to
‘I know I have a responsibility that if ever I’m able to influence anything, I’ll speak my mind and try and lift the game because I think it will only benefit everyone.’
So, what would Smith do to grow his sport’s appeal?
‘If you look on a small scale at what we do at Quins with the Big Game and Big Summer Kick-off, it’s about trying to do things that don’t just appeal to rugby fans,’ he said.
Smith’s incredible success in such a short space of time has seen him become one of the most identifiable faces in the game
‘It’s almost more about a day out. You can encourage people from different ways of life to enjoy the spectacle, because obviously it’s a show. We’re entertainers at the end of the day.
‘Whatever it is – a music artist, DJ, or motocross bikes outside – you’ll encourage more people to come, not just people who love their rugby.’
Smith’s main focus, of course, is delivering on the field. Last season he became England’s back-line general and helped Eddie Jones’ side to a summer Test series win in Australia.
He says it is rugby’s duty to come up with initiatives that don’t just appeal to rugby fans
His popularity is on the rise. Outside of his comfort zone, Smith recently appeared in GQ. He has consulted friends in football for advice on how to deal with fame.
On Sunday, he will strut his stuff once again for the ‘great entertainers’ of Harlequins. There is no doubt Smith and his team-mates play a positive brand of rugby.
Their game with Northampton – another side who don’t like to die wondering – should be one to watch.
‘It’s special to be part of this club,’ said Smith, who will spend the next year bidding for glory at domestic level and trying to take England’s attack to the next level as the countdown to next year’s World Cup hots up. ‘It’s our role as players at Harlequins to win games but doing it the Quins way.’