There is a gem sparkling brightly in our midst, hiding in plain sight, and we in the Filipino community do not realise that this undiscovered treasure, by us, is a source of national pride here in England. It is time we laid claim to rugby royalty, Marcus Smith.
Marcus Sebastian Smith is a 21-year-old professional athlete who is English rugby union’s wunderkind. He has been hailed as a naturally gifted playmaker who became an overnight sensation when he was brought into the England squad aged 18. Soon after, he signed a six-figure contract with Harlequins that made him the highest paid teenager in world rugby. He was voted Young Player of the Year at the 2018 Rugby Players’ Association Players Awards and was shortlisted for the BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year award. So how did those amazing feats by a remarkable young man with Filipino roots escape our collective attention?
It is because we Filipinos only know one contact sport – boxing. (Yes, we are basketball aficionados as a people but “basketball, by rule, is a non-contact sport.”). And we salute only one sporting hero – Manny Pacquiao.
Marcus himself looks up to Manny as an inspiration. He says, “For me, being half-Filipino, I’ve got to look no further than Manny Pacquiao. The passion and determination he has shown to get to the top in the world of boxing is very inspiring. It shows that hard work can get you in the real big stadiums in front of all the spotlights. He is truly a special person.”
Marcus’ road to fame and glory began when his athletic talent was spotted by Eddie Jones, head coach of the England national team. He was then a schoolboy in Brighton College where he received a sport scholarship.
English rugby’s wonderkid tells us how that opportunity came about. “So, when I was 13, I moved back to England with my family and we were looking round at schools in the Brighton area as my dad was born there. Brighton College popped out as a good school both academic and sports-wise, so it was a perfect opportunity. And then I attended a trial day which I was invited to for the sports scholarship where we had to do different sports and fitness tests. I was lucky enough to have been offered a scholarship which helped my family put my brothers and I to that school. I have many good memories from there.”
Marcus is the oldest son of Suzanne and Jeremy Smith. His father is English, and his mother is Filipino. He has two younger brothers, Luc and Tomas. He relates to us how his parents have sparked his interest in rugby from age 7. “I’ve always had a love for sport. It’s in my blood. My dad loves all his sports, from rugby and cricket mainly, as well as football. My mum claims to have played football at school. So, it’s from my parents! The reason why from a young age, my brothers and I were exposed to a variety of sports that we enjoyed in our garden.”
Many of us haven’t got a clue as to how rugby is played. Marcus enlightens us on the game. He plays at fly-half, so he is the first receiver of the ball from the scrumhalf after a scrum. Er, say that again? Marcus explains further. “Yeah, so a fly-half plays with a number 10 on his back. He is the link between the Forwards (Big guys) and the Backs (Small guys). He is the organiser of the team’s attack along with the scrumhalf. The key things you need as a fly-half are an understanding of the game, kicking, running and passing ability, and a bit of physicality for defence as you get targeted. I love the position. For me, it’s the best position on the pitch.”
Marcus’ performance on the pitch has been described as ‘controlled,’ ‘measured’ and ‘electric’ by those who know rugby. What does it take to be a good rugby player then? This celebrated sportsman tells us. “For me, it takes skills, first and foremost. I’m a strong believer that skills are the most important. The ability to catch pass whilst running is the most crucial element as they are the key fundamentals of the game. Alongside that, you need some physical attributes like strength, power and speed to run with the ball or tackle players.”
A highly demanding sport like rugby must surely need a lot of preparation, both physical and mental.
“For me, I try to relax into games and enjoy them and play with a smile on my face. So, mentally I listen to music before games to chill out and enjoy the moment because that’s when I play my best. I believe that mental preparation is of massive importance so I do a lot of meditation and breathing work so I can stay free and clear in my mind to make good decisions and stay calm on the pitch,” Marcus says.
On the somatic side of things, Marcus speaks of a focused training regimen.” I practise 5 days a week at varying intensities and focussing on different parts of my game – from my speed training to gym, kicking, attacking and defence. I make sure I sleep easy the night before the game knowing I’ve left no stone unturned.”
Does he follow a strict diet? Marcus says he tries to, but his mum Suzanne’s home cooking is too good to resist. Every Filipino mother worth her salt would nod in agreement. He is bound to have a favourite Filipino dish, surely. “I love Filipino food. My favourites are lechon kawali with tomatoes in soy sauce, of course with rice. I also love sinigang. Amazing!”
Away from home and from the temptation of Filipino food, Marcus manages to stay disciplined.” When I’m on my own, I try and stay strict on my diet during the week, and have a few treats on the weekends, especially after a good game,” he says.
Those of us who are mothers to children with a dual heritage sometimes wonder how our offspring feel about our exoticness. Marcus ponders on what it means to have a Filipino mother. “It means everything to me. I’m a very proud half-Pinoy. I’m so happy to have experienced and learned the Filipino culture and traditions. I enjoy communicating to my mum in Tagalog and Visayan, as I understand it a lot. I try to mimic her Filipino accent and my brothers and I just end up laughing. My mum just smiles. We are so close to her,” he relates fondly. Such a scenario resonates well with Pinoy mums. One Filipino-American comedian has made a career out of mimicking his mother. All in good fun, as we Filipinos have the ability to laugh at ourselves.
The question of identity is something that inevitably comes up when there are two cultures at play, particularly in an East-West combination. How does Marcus define his cultural identity? “I’d always say I’m half-Filipino, half-English. I’m proud of my heritage and where I’ve come from. I’m lucky to have had a brilliant upbringing and a loving family. As a 21-year-old, I’m grateful that I’ve experienced both cultures and have lived both in the Philippines and in England, respectively,” he muses.
Having spent part of his childhood in the Philippines, Marcus has a deep admiration for Filipino family values. “For me, I love the fact that family is everything over there. It’s definitely rubbed off on me, and I think that’s part of the reason as to why I’m extremely close with my family,” he proudly declares.
Any Filipino quirks that he finds either amusing or annoying? “I love karaoke nights in the Philippines. No one quite realises over here how much Filipinos love karaoke. On the other hand, one thing that annoys me sometimes is how late things can be over there. Ahahah! From my experience anyway,” he laughs.
One wonders if a busy sporting star like Marcus finds time to unwind and lose himself in other pursuits. He says, “I try to switch off. I enjoy going for food with friends, in town. I do like playing X-box at times. I read motivational and autobiography books of people I admire to better myself. I do the Rubik’s cube, really trying to master it and compete with my brothers. I do play my guitar too. And whenever I can get a chance, I love spending time with the family, for sure.”
Now, here is a young man who, despite his star status, keeps his feet firmly on the ground. He is humble, endearing and down to earth. He loves his rugby, but more than that, he loves his family. Every Filipino mother would want a son like Marcus Smith.