When Marcus Smith makes his much-anticipated Test debut for England, his own personal cheer squad will extend far beyond those present at Twickenham. Halfway around the world, and across Asia, in fact.
The Harlequins fly-half may only be 22, but he has long been regarded as one of the most precocious talents in the English game.
As far back as 2015 and having only just started his A-levels, he had caught the eye of Eddie Jones, who is now the England coach. At that point, Jones was in charge of a Japan side who were training at Smith’s school while preparing for the World Cup.
His ascent to full-England duty has felt like a sure thing ever since — but his rise until that point had been anything but, having started far beyond the sport’s mainstream.
Born in Manila to a Filipina mother and English father, Smith’s first taste of rugby came as a six-year-old in a side set up by a set of expat dads.
One of those dads, Trevor Stott-Briggs, now lives in Abu Dhabi and has been a long-term resident of the UAE.
He recalls setting up the rugby programme which set Smith on the way in rugby — and via which the game in the Philippines is now thriving.
“At the end of 2004 Marcus’s dad [Jeremy] and I were players for Nomads [a rugby club in Manila which is Philippines’ second oldest sports club,” Stott-Briggs said.
“We realised there were lots of kids of other expat dads like ourselves, married to Filipinas, who had kids ranging from four- to 10-years-old.
“They all said, ‘Look, why don’t we do something for the kids on a Saturday afternoon, before the grown-ups play?’
“We set up what we grandiosely called the Nomads Junior Academy. We also roped in all the kids of the bar staff, the groundsmen, and anyone else who worked at the club.
“We started to teach them how to play, because we wanted enough players to have a game.
“At the beginning, it was like herding stray cats. All the kids would run towards the ball, and it was fun trying to teach them to stay in a line. Eventually, it started to come together.”
Philippines may now be among the leading sides in Asia, and sit as high as 41 in the World Rugby rankings.
Stott-Briggs, though, admits the expat dads were unsure as to how the indigenous players would take to their attempts to introduce the game to them back then.
“All of us were expats, and we all thought Filipinos would not make good rugby players, because they are too small,” he said. “We were completely wrong about that, I’m happy to say in retrospect.
“What Filipinos generally do have is ball skills, because basketball is the national sport. They were good at dodging and weaving, and had good hand-eye coordination.
“If you throw a ball to a Filipino, it doesn’t matter how old they are, they will catch it.”
The first intake of players proved to be a remarkable crop. Five of the first 12 players have since gone on to representative honours with the Philippines, while Smith is now set for England.
“Jeremy [Smith’s dad] was a very good rugby player in his own right, and immediately Marcus stood out from this whole group,” Stott-Briggs said.
“He was six, not the oldest there, but if you gave him the ball he would run and weave, and was guaranteed to score.
“He could dodge around the coaches. We had first-team players who would come along and help, and stand in the defensive line. But he could sidestep everybody, aged six. He obviously had talent.”
Even England coach Jones gave his endorsement to that.
“I remember watching him in 2015 at Brighton College and when there was something on, he took it and maybe for a period of time he was more likely to be a pattern player,” Jones told the English media earlier this summer.
“And I think he is getting a nice balance in his game between understanding the responsibilities of getting the team organised, but then playing what is in front of him. I think his development is really positive.”
Stott-Briggs has followed Smith’s development from distance since moving to the UAE, but the respective families remain close. He is delighted with the progress Smith has made.
“From a little rugby club in South-east Asia, Marcus has got there, and quite right been recognised as an extraordinary talent,” Stott-Briggs said. “His dad used to take him up to Harlequins in London, up from Brighton.
“At that point we would start getting videos through, and it was clear he was even outstanding among a group of outstanding players.
“He is such a nice kid. He is not big headed. Just super talented.”