Morgan Smithies is a young man on a mission, but he’s doing the business quietly where it counts on the pitch, and leaving it to others to shout about his prospects.
Morgan Smithies is a man of very few words.
Perhaps that’s unsurprising. Many people say an athlete’s playing style reflects their personality.
In that sense, his demeanour off the pitch reflects what you see on it. His way of handling questions from the media reflects his attitude to his requirements on the pitch. He gets on with it, he does it, and he leaves.
There’s no messing about. There’s no hair ruffling or back chatting like his partner in crime, Ollie Partington. Though you’d imagine that if he had to, he’d come in and sort things out if required.
But while he might like keeping himself to himself, there’s nothing understated about his remarkable season.
Everyone loves a meteoric rise, but to describe Smithies’ maiden year as that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s been borderline outrageous.
In December of last year, Smithies first emerged to the wider game as someone to keep an eye on. He was a driving force in the England Academy pack that sent the Aussie Schoolboys packing.
“Watch out for Morgan Smithies,” his agent, Craig Harrison told me on a freezing cold night at Headingley.
“He’s something else.”
Sure enough, he beat the Aussies up, metaphorically, of course.
At this point, Smithies had never trained with Wigan’s first team. He had just turned 18.
So naturally, even he didn’t envisage what was to come next.
“To be honest with you at the start of the season I was looking forward to playing in the 19s all season,” he said.
“I thought I was going to be playing a Grand Final with the 19s. That was the aim really.”
So Smithies was delighted when, at the start of March, he was pushed into first-team training with the Warriors.
“It was around a few weeks after I first trained with them that I made my debut, maybe a month.”
That in itself is impressive. The fact that he went on to make 24 appearances, broke a Super League tackling record, was dubbed as Sean O’Loughlin’s replacement and tipped to become one of the world’s greatest forwards blows everything into a whole other spectrum.
Smithies is destined for the top, there’s no doubting that. He has absolutely blown away senior players and coaches.
“He’s not even had an off-season with the club in a full-time environment so it’s amazing that we are talking about him in that light when he hasn’t had a full pre-season,” beamed Adrian Lam after he produced another outstanding performance for the Warriors.
“Players come back from pre-season like twice the player they usually are, so I’m looking forward to seeing how good he is going to be next year.”
In closer circles, there are strong suggestions that Smithies’ lack of a pre-season is the only reason he isn’t on the Great Britain tour, to ensure he gets the time to develop his game in the right environment. Had he earned that spot, some seven months after training with the first team for the first time, that would have been one of the greatest rookie years of all time.
“I’ve had a decent season,” is his modest assessment.
“It’s been a dream come true really this year. In the end, I was playing a match to get to the Super League Grand Final. I’m chuffed. I didn’t expect it at all to be honest.”
To most, the last 12 months would have been impossible to handle on the pitch, but as challenging to adapt to on it.
Smithies has rubbed shoulders with legends of the game and the club, he’s gone up against some of the world’s best players. It’s a daunting prospect for a lad who only last year was legal to go out in clubs.
“I just get on with it,” he says dismissively when asked if his rise has been surreal.
“When I’m training with the likes of Lockers I don’t really think about it because when I’m out there with him I want to learn from him as much as I can. He’s a legend of the game, I look up to him as a role model.
“The whole thing has come around really quick, it’s worked in my favour as I haven’t been able to think about it at all, I’ve just been able to get my head down and get on with it and keep going, that’s been good for me to be honest.”
His minimalist responses to questions are somewhat admirable. There’s no desire to talk himself up or bask in the glory that has been thrown at him in abundance.
Even when he offers a more extended response to a question, what he says is so simple.
“Whoever wins a game of Rugby League is whoever wants it more.
“It’s just a physical game, innit? Me and Ollie have had a good partnership, we just try to get stuck in. We just have a dig and what works for the team.
“I know players are going to come and try to rough me up. I expect it really, it’s something to look forward to, it makes it more interesting really.
“I’m looking forward to a full pre-season. Because we played Australia last December I only did a bit of a pre-season with the 19s so I didn’t get a chance to train with the first-team at all, but it will be good to get back in.”
Someone else keen to see him get a pre-season under his belt is Dave Rotheram, the RFL’s Head of Talent and Player Development.
“I think he has matured beyond his years and he’s proven that.
“This time last year he was running around for the Academy time training against the Knights, now he’s playing for them. It says a lot about him and the Wigan club how they’ve developed him. Once he got into Super League, he never left. Most 18-year-olds who make that level are in for a few weeks, then back out, but he’s had a starting spot since March.
“You think going back this time last year, he’d have been thinking about his first pre-season as an adult. Now he’s held his own with the best in Super League. Long may that continue and he will kick on and be a star of the future.
“Like you said, he’s a man of few words. But in general, what I’ve noticed about the players coming through of his age, they’ve got a very good attitude and a great attention to detail. Being a professional sportsman now, whether that be in Super League or England, they’ve got lots to think about with a big support network. They’ve so much to get used to, whether that be physios, doctors, coaches or managers, they’ve got to learn to how to do that. What you find is that those that can come through are the ones who learn things quickly. That’s something Morgan has done and is a big thing for him.”
So what does the future hold? In the short-term, Smithies wants a Grand Final appearance.
“We’ve got a good group if we have a good pre-season we can have a good dig at 2020.”
Long-term? Smithies isn’t keen to talk about himself. But from where we’re looking, and seemingly where everyone else is looking, he’s heading one way, and that’s to the top of the Rugby League stratosphere.
This feature was first published in Rugby League World (Issue 463, Nov 2019)