Fin Smith stated that while most children typically watch cartoons, they used to watch Jonny Wilkinson instead.
For young and eager fly-halves in the Premiership, there is no place to seek refuge. On Saturday, Northampton’s Fin Smith will be facing off against Handré Pollard, the man who secured South Africa’s World Cup victory only three weeks ago. Just six days later, he will have a Friday night match at Franklin’s Gardens against his namesake, Marcus Smith. And as if that wasn’t enough, he will then travel to north London to go up against the infamous Owen Farrell.
It would be a daunting to-do list for an old timer, never mind a 21-year-old who had the financial rug pulled from beneath him at Worcester last year and was on loan at Ampthill two seasons ago. How interesting, then, to hear Saints’ head coach, Phil Dowson, say he would back his youthful stand-off against anyone.
“I am certain,” states Dowson, who spent eight years on the Newcastle team alongside Jonny Wilkinson. “Without a doubt, I would choose him every day of the week. I am familiar with his abilities, his personality, and his support system. Our style of play is deeply ingrained, and I have full confidence in his ability to face anyone.”
Dowson, before an upcoming rivalry match at Welford Road in the east Midlands, does not want to unfairly compare to Wilkinson, but the Saints have confidence in his abilities. Although Farrell, Ford, and Smith M are established options for No 10 in Test matches, Smith F could potentially be England’s future. While he may not be well-known outside of his family’s residence in Stratford-upon-Avon, his recent performances suggest that he will soon gain recognition.
On Sunday, Northampton’s win against Exeter marked their third consecutive league victory. This performance further highlighted the potential of their player, who could potentially be an asset to England’s team. With a calm and assured style of play, this individual has the ability to create opportunities for their team members. They also possess strong kicking skills and a determined defensive mindset, making them a well-rounded player. It’s not often that such a complete package comes along.
Smith, who is confident and likable, openly expresses his goal of playing for the national rugby team in the near future. During England’s World Cup training camps, he was pushed to his limits and wrote down his goals for the upcoming season in a notebook. At the top of his list was earning a spot on the England team this year. He understands that he needs to perform well in order to have a chance, but he is determined and eager to be chosen. His focus for now is on playing well in his current team.
The planned match between England A and Portugal in late February may be a significant milestone for him, despite his familial ties. His mother is a lawyer and his father is a nurse, and his grandfather, Tom Elliot, played for Gala, Scotland, and the British & Irish Lions as a Borders farmer. He acknowledges the possibility of playing for Scotland in the future, but his focus for now is on working towards joining the England squad and eventually being selected to play for them.
When he thinks back on his childhood, it’s clear why Gregor Townsend was determined to represent Scotland. His father, a big fan of Scottish rugby, would attend almost every Six Nations game at Murrayfield wearing a kilt. He met Townsend’s mother at a curry night after a match at London Scottish’s clubhouse. Despite the not-so-romantic circumstances, they have been together for 28 years. Townsend’s father was playing for one of the lower teams and was bothering his future wife in the bar, while she was there to watch the first team play. The rest is history.
Ever since his first visit, aged four, to Shipston on Stour RFC, however, Smith has been a product of the English system, educated at Warwick school and further shaped by formative sessions in the back garden with his elder brother Angus. “I quite enjoy defending which maybe some fly-halves are not necessarily associated with. I think that’s definitely come from having the crap kicked out of me in the garden from a young age. You either toughen up or you keep getting beaten up.”
Deep within, there also lies the identical quality of unyielding perseverance that Dowson recalls witnessing in Wilkinson. “Absolutely, yeah. But I believe that is a trait of one’s character. Someone who constantly strives, who is never content. At times, we try to remind Fin to ‘continue enjoying it and not push yourself too much.’ But that is what has brought him to this point. It’s his self-awareness that motivates him to say: ‘I must improve.'”
To add to his skills, Wilkinson, who was once Smith’s childhood idol, has been assisting him with his kicking technique. It still seems surreal to Smith. “We have a video of Jonny Wilkinson’s highlights … I used to watch it whenever I had free time. While most kids watched cartoons, I would just sit and watch him.” Now, they have one-on-one kicking sessions together. “He is great at encouraging you to believe in yourself and to stay calm. It has been amazing to work with him. After a session, we would go to the car park and he would be surrounded by fans. It’s incredible to see how much of an icon he is.”
Smith, who was a part of England’s U20 grand slam in 2021, is fortunate to have Sam Vesty, a former Leicester player, as his mentor at Northampton. However, as a No 10, he must ultimately be prepared to take charge on his own. According to Dowson, top players like Johnny Sexton, Jonny Wilkinson, and Owen Farrell all crave that responsibility. When the pressure is on and they have to make the next move, they are grateful for the opportunity and are drawn to the position for that reason.
Blend in some of the up-and-coming players in the Premiership, and according to Dowson, English rugby has much to be enthusiastic about for the future. Smith is determined to do more than just kick the ball high into the air. “All players want to play an aggressive style of rugby. If you ask any rugby player, they want to pass the ball around. It’s more enjoyable… I believe I excel at finding open space with my passes.”
Time and space, however, is a rarity in a fast and furious east Midlands encounter. It will be Smith’s first derby experience – “It can make your whole season if you win a game at Welford Road. We’re buzzing for it” – and perhaps the biggest test of the young pretender’s mettle so far. Stand up to Pollard – “I heard he had a decent World Cup … hopefully he doesn’t kick too many winning penalties at the weekend” – Smith M and Farrell over the next fortnight and his notebook dreams will be swiftly realised.