Rugby is thus not in crisis, but certainly in trouble.
Premiership sides Worcester and Wasps fight for survival and face serious financial problems. The impact of head injuries on both current and former players is an issue that will not go away. Visitor numbers have fallen this season due to the cost of living crisis.
The sport urgently needs a shot in the arm. Luckily for the rugby managers, there are players like Marcus Smith around to offer a glimmer of hope. England and Harlequins fly-half Smith has quickly emerged as the new face of the English game. Only 23, he’s an amazing talent.
Marcus Smith has admitted he feels responsible for the game and its growth
But in addition to leading the ship for club and country from number 10, Smith is a player who can help attract new audiences to the game. On the field, he’s a man people pay to watch.
Apart from that, his age and background is something that may appeal to people outside the traditional rugby market. Smith grew up in the Philippines and is a member of the TikTok generation.
Smith admitted he is more than aware of the role he has to play in the future of rugby.
“I feel very responsible,” he said.
The English fly-half, who has become one of the sport’s main stars, admitted it is well behind football
“Ultimately, we are the patrons of the game right now. I think the flashlight shines on us and our job is to entertain and put on a show for the people who come to support.
“Obviously it’s a problem with Worcester right now and possibly wasps as well. As Quins we are very grateful to our owners, but it also shows how vulnerable it can be (rugby).
“You must have fun now that it’s here. It won’t last forever and our role as players today is to raise the profile and inspire the new youth in this country, both men and women.
“Hopefully we can build the game and take it to a new level.”
Eloquent and captivating, Smith sees the bigger picture. As someone who has already represented the British and Irish lions, his status as one of the rugby stars is unlikely to wane in the next decade.
In that sense, he’s lucky, as some of his Premiership compatriots are holding onto their jobs at clubs like poor Worcester. Many other players have already seen their jobs as rugby players come to an end following the cut in the league’s salary cap. The huge impact that Covid-19 has had on the professional game continues.
The NFL was another sport that, according to Smith, had stormed in popularity for rugby in recent years
“You see sports like NFL, basketball and football and they are miles ahead of us, so we have some catching up to do,” Smith said.
“But I think we’re in a good position because we can see that the model is working. Hopefully we can market it our way.
“It’s not my job to tell other people to do more, but I think everyone has a responsibility to influence their circle, no matter how big or small it is.
“If a player in this country lets one of his friends watch a rugby match, the numbers will grow rapidly. Everything we can do individually is brilliant.
The Premier League is now such a behemoth that rugby must find innovative ways to gain ground – youthful players like Smith can help
“I think we’re in an exciting place as players today and potentially that (change) could be something we’re striving for. Ultimately you have to be a good professional, a good person, a good player, and hopefully people will follow. If that’s the case, it’s your duty to the game of rugby to take it positively and push it forward.’
Smith’s English colleague Ellis Genge echoed his calls for change earlier this week, proposing an idea of NFL-esque halftime shows and musical entertainment at games.
Another Northampton international, captain Lewis Ludlam, has admitted that today’s players need to do more to increase the appeal of rugby.
Smith’s popularity came amid a miraculous rise that saw him win caps for the British & Irish Lions
It is heartwarming to see these comments.
The likes of Smith, Genge and Ludlam should definitely be consulted by rugby’s hierarchies – many of whom have no idea what TikTok is – about 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 made suggestions for ways the sport can grow
Lewis Ludlam is another face that young people coming through the ranks can look up to and identify with
“I know I have a responsibility that if I am ever able to influence anything, I will speak my mind and try to lift the game because I think it will only benefit everyone.”
So, what would Smith do to increase the appeal of his sport?
“If you look on a small scale at what we’re doing at Quins with the Big Game and Big Summer Kick-off, it’s about doing things that don’t just appeal to rugby fans,” he said.
Smith’s incredible success in such a short space of time has made him one of the most recognizable faces in the game
“It’s almost more like a day out. You can encourage people of different lifestyles to enjoy the spectacle, because it is, of course, a show. We are entertainers at the end of the day.
“Whatever it is – a music artist, DJ or motocross racers outside – you will encourage more people to come, not just people who love their rugby.”
Smith’s main focus is of course delivering on the field. Last season he became England’s back-line general and helped Eddie Jones’ side to a victory in the summer Test series in Australia.
He says rugby’s job is to come up with initiatives that appeal not just 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 show off again for the ‘great entertainers’ of Harlequins. Smith and his teammates undoubtedly play a positive kind of rugby.
Their game with Northampton – another side that doesn’t like to die with wonder – should be one to watch.
“It’s special to be part of this club,” said Smith, who will be bidding for domestic glory in the coming year and looking to take England’s attack to the next level as the countdown to next year’s World Cup gets warmer. “Our role as players at Harlequins is to win games, but the Quins way.”