Smith accepts role in helping ‘lift profile’ of rugby union amid financial crisis

Marcus Smith has admitted he feels a responsibility to help promote rugby union in England amid the financial crisis unfolding in the Premiership. As England’s fly-half and one of the stars of the sport, Smith also revealed he has a duty to “put on a show” and said he would be open to holding talks with officials over how best to grow the game.

Smith’s Harlequins have developed a reputation as the game’s entertainers and before Sunday’s match against Northampton had sold out the Stoop for every home league match since the start of last season. That belies the current trend across the league however, with the respective plights of Worcester and Wasps highlighting the fragility of Premiership clubs.

There is a growing acceptance that change is needed to drive greater commercial revenues and increasingly the penny is dropping that players need to be at the forefront, even if singling out stars goes against the team ethos of rugby union. Smith is one of the few current household names and acknowledged that the level of attention he receives in public is growing.

He spent three weeks in Los Angeles over the summer, during which he worked with an NFL coach, and believes there are a number of lessons that can be learned from US sports. Harlequins are front-runners in that regard also and Premiership Rugby praised the club for how they attracted a younger and more diverse audience for their May fixture against Gloucester at Twickenham.

“I feel very responsible,” said Smith. “Ultimately we are the patrons for the game. The light 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 but potentially Wasps as well. At Quins we’re very grateful for our owners but it also shows how fragile it can be.

“More importantly, you have to enjoy yourself while it’s here. It’s not going to last for ever and it’s our role 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.

“If you look even just on a small scale what we do at Quins, trying to do things that don’t just appeal to rugby fans or families, almost 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.”

While rugby’s domestic problems have been laid bare in recent weeks, over the summer England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, called for a global summit of coaches, players and referees this autumn to improve the international game as a spectacle, so frustrated had he become with its stop-start nature.

The recent Bledisloe Cup controversy, when Australia’s Bernard Foley was punished for time-wasting in the dying moments, only highlighted the inconsistencies of the Test game but Smith believes anything designed to speed up matches is positive.

“Obviously in an ideal world, you want more ball-in-play time,” he added. “I think the average ball in play time is, what, 35 minutes or something like that? So again, if we’re talking about selling the product and making the product better to watch and more accessible then if you lift that to 50, ultimately there’s going to be more exciting things that happen.”