Smith tests Headingley's head for great heights

Leeds' new coach has a simple mission - to transform the runners-up into champions. Dave Hadfield meets him
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The Independent Online

New coaches and managers are routinely appointed with the aim of improving a team's performance - otherwise what are they there for? But it is only rarely that, as in Tony Smith's case, improvement means having to take them from second place to first.

The Super League season, which starts on Friday, is another in which Leeds could - should, even - finish top of the heap. They have only one new player, so if they are to do so, it is Smith who must provide the missing ingredient.

His arrival at Headingley took the game by surprise. The 37-year-old younger brother of the former Bradford and Hull coach, Brian, had told Huddersfield that he was leaving at the end of his third season there. The word was that he would guide the French club Union Treiziste Catalane into Super League. But then, with a suddenness that surprised even him, he was Leeds' coach-in-waiting.

"Huddersfield knew I was leaving, so I was looking at other options. When the offer came, I was ready for Leeds and Leeds were ready for me," he says. The possible sticking point was the position of the outgoing coach, Daryl Powell, who was - happily, he insists - moving to become director of rugby. "I had to make sure everything would be right between Daryl and myself, but it's been super. We've got a good relationship."

Fine, but there is no doubt now at Headingley who is in charge of team matters. Smith is very hands-on, and does not run his clubs as a co-operative. It will be his stamp on the way they play this season.

What sort of stamp will that be? Huddersfield's vastly improved results last season came at the cost of much criticism over the way they approached the game. They were, to put it mildly, confrontational, with a strong emphasis on stopping the opposition from playing. "That was on the back of some commentators," Smith says. "They can put a brand on you and it sticks. We played to our strengths; we played aggressively and with a great deal of passion. But we did it within the rules and we also threw the ball around a lot."

Leeds fans, who demand style as well as success - and sometimes get neither - would not particularly welcome Huddersfield as a template, but Smith says they have nothing to fear. "We have players of great talent here and I'll be asking them to play with that talent," he says.

Much scrutiny will be focused on the way he applies that simple philosophy to the Rhinos' crop of young British players. So far, the signs are encouraging, with Danny Mc-Guire and Rob Burrow paired at half-back for most of the pre-season action, with the more experienced Australian Andrew Dunemann as the get-out-of-jail card on the bench.

"I'd like to encourage that combination," says Smith of the two young Englishmen, "but Andrew Dunemann will have something to say about that. I've got to pick on form and pick the team that's going to get the job done. There's more to it than just nurturing players for the future."

Failure to get the job done last season amounted, in essence, to one thing - their inability to beat Bradford. Leeds lost to them five times.

The only addition to the squad is the Melbourne and Papua New Guinea winger Marcus Bai, a match-winner in some circumstances but a player who hardly answers the question of how to avoid being battered by the Bulls again. Smith also has senior players such as Gary Connolly, Barrie McDermott, Dave Furner and Matt Adamson who are all another year older.

"I don't see any signs of them going over the hill and I think we've got the right blend of youth and experience," he says. That blend is only helped by the reintegration in the squad of Ryan Bailey and Chev Walker, who both spent some of last season in a young offenders' institution for their part in a nightclub brawl and have yet to play a competitive game since their release. "They look like they've never been away," Smith says. "It's time for what happened to them to be put to one side and for them just to be known again as good rugby players."

Good players are something Smith will not lack at Headingley, and there is even room under their salary cap for Iestyn Harris, should he become available in mid-season. The problem, as ever, is making them add up to the sum of their parts, and Smith has just two years to do that: another unusual aspect of Smith's job at Leeds is that it comes with a time limit. After two seasons, Powell takes over again and Smith will pursue his other ambition, of coaching at top level in his native Australia.

"That's the arrangement and I'm comfortable with it. I've got two years and I want to be as successful as possible in those two years."

The home guard: Four young Britons ready to make a big impact

Luke Robinson

Club: Wigan. Age: 19

With Adrian Lam injured and not certain to return, Robinson has a big job on his hands this year. He did spectacularly well as a stand-in last season, showing a precocious ability to read play and get himself into the right places. His stock fell sharply when his inexperience showed in the Grand Final defeat by Bradford, but he has great self-confidence and the ability to learn from any setbacks.

Jamie Langley

Bradford, 20

Outstanding as a mobile, clever second-rower and a natural leader in the representative sides that he has played in, Langley has had to wait some time for his chance at the Bulls. With three key players gone from the pack, however, they will need him to step up this time. Always creative with the ball, he now has the strength and bulk that Bradford demand from their forwards.

James Graham

St Helens, 18

Already a stand-out in his age-group - Graham was named Player of the Series against the Australian Institute of Sport last autumn - he will get his first-team opportunity with the Saints this year. His coach, Ian Millward, is wary of pushing him too far too soon, but this combative, red-haired prop or second-row from Liverpool is one for the future - and perhaps the not-too-distant future either.

Paul Wood

Warrington, 22

This young forward was called up for the full Great Britain squad in October and might have played against Australia but for injury. This is the year when he must build on the good impression he made last time. Needs to polish some aspects of his game and will then be a formidable proposition. The guidance he gets from new signing Mike Forshaw will be of great value.