Fin Smith in flying form and looking to oversee a second Champions Cup win over Munster

Northampton’s 22-year-old outhalf against 24-year-old Jack Crowley could be battle for years to come

Harlequins pivot Marcus Smith’s chutzpah on a rugby pitch is undeniable. George Ford of the Sale Sharks possesses excellent game management skills. Fin Smith’s supporters would argue that his style incorporates the best qualities of both, the razzmatazz, and the cool pragmatism of the aforementioned outhalves.

He will get another chance to provide credence to that advocacy when he wears the 10 jersey for the Northampton Saints against Munster in the Champions Cup Round of 16 clash at Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday afternoon (12.30, live on TNT Sports, ITV).

The 21-year-old outhalf has consistently impressed this season in building upon a noteworthy body of work that dates back to his teenage days. A product of Shipston-on-Stour rugby club and Warwick School he joined the Worcester Warriors academy and became the second youngest player in their history when he made his Gallagher Premiership debut as an 18-year-old.

He played four of five matches in England’s Under-20 Grand Slam winning campaign in 2021 while a year later he helped Worcester to the Guinness Premiership Cup beating London Irish in the final. When the Warriors went bust later that year he was snapped up by Northampton.


How Leicester inspired Leinster's drive to the top

Listen | 48:11

Since joining the Saints, he has scored 323 points in 35 appearances over two seasons to date and attracted the attention of both two countries for whom he is eligible. His parents Andrew and Judith are Scottish while his grandfather, Tom Elliot, won 14 caps for Scotland and also toured with the 1955 British & Irish Lions, playing eight midweek matches.

Smith, though, has only ever wanted to play for England. Steve Borthwick named him in his 2023 Six Nations squad but the young outhalf didn’t get any minutes. That changed though in this year’s tournament when Smith made his debut off the bench against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. He followed up those 14 minutes with 19 against Scotland and would have added to that tally but for injury.

One of the performances that would have convinced Borthwick that Smith had the temperament to match his talent was the outhalf’s display in Northampton’s 26-23 Champions Cup pool stage win over Munster in Thomond Park in January. He chipped in with a mature performance, contributing 16 points with the boot including a mammoth drop goal.

The two sides get to enjoy a sequel in Northampton on Sunday when Smith, who will be 22 next month, will square off against Munster’s Jack Crowley (24), a rivalry that could endure through to Test level and perhaps to the Lions tour to Australia next summer.

Fin Smith missed England’s Six Nations win over Ireland at Twickenham because of injury with Ford starting the game and Marcus Smith coming off the bench to nab the winning drop goal.

Crowley handled the pressure in successfully emerging from Johnny Sexton’s shadow to help propel Ireland to a Six Nations title and is enjoying greater prominence in helping to shape and define Munster’s attacking patterns. Part of his development moving forward in every sense of the phrase is to bring to bear the individual brilliance that marked his age-grade rugby days.

There was a little glimpse of that in his most recent outing, in the try he scored against Cardiff in last weekend’s URC win. He demonstrated excellent footwork in tight confines and had the wit to use the frame of a team-mate as a buffer.

Crowley just needs to back himself occasionally in backing himself to breach the gain-line, using that strength and acceleration. He possesses all the distribution skills required while the variety in his kicking game is wide ranging and assured. He leads the URC in terms of placekicking success, at over 90 per cent.

Duels between the respective outhalves are rarely linear because they are hugely dependent on so many other factors, not least on whose pack provides the better platform but it will be instructive to watch on Sunday lunchtime how the respective 10s cope.

That could be extended to the tussle of the scrumhalves, whether it is Craig Casey or Conor Murray for Munster, while Alex Mitchell has made the England jersey his own, outside of injury issues for the last year or so.

Smith does not lack confidence but winning the man-of-the-match award – he gave the scoring pass for three of the tries while kicking a flawless 16 points – in Northampton’s 40-31 against Owen Farrell’s Saracens will have ensured that those levels are brimful.

Northampton head coach Phil Dowson noted the maturation of his playmaker. “This time last year, when it wasn’t a decongested calendar, he was in and out of that [England] squad and learning how to cope with not being involved and coming back to a club etc.

“But he is a year further down, he has a year of experience. He has got caps, he is way more confident in that environment. He is better at dealing with going from the international stage to this stage.” But then Munster knew that already.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer