Next Big Thing: Morgan Smithies is making waves with Wigan Warriors
By By Tom Mordey and Jenna Brooks
Last Updated: 29/04/20 6:12am
The number 72 may define the fledgling career of Morgan Smithies. It's a significant figure. It's the amount of tackles the teenage forward managed in one match in the play-off win over Salford in September.
That breaks the 21-year Super League record for most in a game. And Smithies didn't even play the full 80 minutes.
Smithies wasn't even born when Steele Retchless set the original Super League benchmark of 66 playing for London in 1998. But remarkably, his 72 hits were just five off the world record for an 80-minute game, set by Penrith Panthers' Elijah Taylor in 2015. That's a work ethic that should see Smithies go far in the game.
Wigan coach, Adrian Lam, said: "When he did that, I just thought it was another game until I saw the statistics and I went oh my goodness, what have we got here."
"I'm always wary of the age that a player is playing and how you can burn them out quickly. We had a heap of injuries during last season, unprecedented it was that many. I just remember thinking after three games we needed to rest him one way or another.
"But the more games he played, the better he got. And I was like, we'll play him one more week, we'll play him one more week. The only way we could stop him from playing was to minimise his game time, we ended up taking him off for 40 minutes straight.
"You won't see anywhere in the world in any sport where an 18-year-old gets better every week."
Smithies learned his trade with Siddal ARLFC before Wigan snapped him up on a scholarship amid plenty of interest.
Matty Peet, the Wigan defence coach, was previously Head of Youth when Smithies progressed through the academy. He said: "There's been quite a lot of talk about Morgan because he came through and made a name for himself quickly, but he hasn't really achieved that much yet in the big scheme of things.
"He'll be the first one to say that if you listed his ambitions and his goals, he's only right at the bottom of the ladder.
"I don't think there's much danger of this going to Morgan's head or any success going to his head because of his character, but he needs to make sure that he keeps that defining characteristic of working hard and wanting to get better. He wants to be the best, so fair play to him."
It's been an incredibly quick rise from Wigan's academy to Sean O'Loughlin's heir apparent. Smithies only made his debut in March last season, coming off the bench in a 42-0 win over Catalans Dragons. He's missed just one round of Super League since, featuring in 24 games in total in 2019, including the three play-off matches.
O'Loughlin said: "I was aware of his talent when he was a 16-year-old. As soon as he stepped foot in the first team and you play alongside him, you appreciate it even more.
"His biggest attributes at the minute without underselling him have been the very mundane stuff. He nails the stuff that you don't always expect a kid to nail week in, week out and he does them with ease.
"Some kids come on the scene and it's the flamboyant stuff that catches the eye and makes them look like special players, but Morgan's come in and he's done the tough and dirty stuff and he's done it really well and not batted an eyelid at it.
"As he gets older and better, the spectacular stuff will come into his game, but he's already a special player and he's only going to get better."
Recognition has been swift. He was nominated for Young Super League Player of the Year, while sharing Wigan's Young Player of the Year award with Oliver Partington. Smithies also won the Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year medal too. The England Knights came calling in the autumn and Smithies wore the No 13 shirt in the win over Jamaica.
Lam rates him as an outstanding talent. He said: "Coming into first grade last year as an 18-year-old with no pre-season under his belt is unheard of.
"Everything that he did in the 2019 season was unbelievable. What I like about him is that he just gets on with the business, you don't know he's there most of the time. When you watch him, his competitive nature and, in general, his genuine toughness are those traits you don't see often."
Smithies has played in all seven games so far this season, including starting the last four. He's developing that reputation as a tackling machine even further. Only Danny Houghton and Paul McShane have made more than his 261 hits so far, an average of 37 per game. Smithies has also shown himself as a willing carrier too, 78 so far - an average of 11 each match.
So how does he continue to progress?
Peet says: "He needs to be playing international rugby. What I've always thought about Morgan is the tougher the game, the more intense the battle that he's in, the more he stands out.
"With Morgan, if you put him in a comfortable game for him, he's not really flashy, he doesn't score lots of tries or make lots of line breaks but the more intense games, the international arena, Grand Finals, semi-finals, they're the kind of games that he needs to be playing in.
"If he doesn't play in those games, I don't think he'll stand out that much."
He doesn't turn 20 until November. The club were quick to tie him down to a four-year deal last season, recognising his potential straight away. As one great Wigan 13 winds down their career, another could be on the rise. Smithies has the perfect role model to learn from in O'Loughlin.
Does the skipper think Smithies can replace him?
"Yes, 100 per cent. When you're coming behind someone who's been at the club a long time, you always get those comparisons made, but I think he'll be his own player, he'll mould himself into what player he wants to be.
"He'll probably use stuff that he sees in me, but he'll look at other players and what he sees in them and try to mould his game around a variety of players and get the best out of as many players as he can. He's definitely got that talent."
The captain planned to retire at the end of this current season before the campaign was halted. It's his 19th season with the Warriors. But Wigan don't have to look far for his replacement. Smithies' star is already well on the rise.