Rugby League: Smith plans to put the record right

The St Helens wing is eager to lose that 'forgotten man' tag.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CHRIS SMITH is the forgotten man of the St Helens backline, sometimes neglected and disregarded by his own team-mates. For Smith, it is not so much a case of being born on the wrong side of the tracks as playing on the wrong side of the field. If he waits on his wing for opportunities, he will die of ball starvation.

The problem for Smith, who will plough his often lonely furrow this evening in the match at Leeds that will decide who meets Wigan in next Saturday's Super League Grand Final, is that Saints, more than any other team, do the vast majority of their attacking down the opposite flank.

On the left, they have the glamour combination of the competition in Paul Newlove and Anthony Sullivan. The right-hand pairing are threatened by an anonymity that goes with their names; Smith and Smith - Chris and his Australian namesake, Damien.

"It can be frustrating," Chris Smith admitted. "But, with players like Paul and Sully, you would play to them."

Smith has worked out his own counter-strategy. He does not wait on his wing for the ball to come to him; he goes foraging for it. "He's not a Martin Offiah type who flashes down the outside and scores you 30 tries a season," his coach, Shaun McRae, said. "But he's still had a pretty good season. His work-rate has been as high as the forwards'. It's tough for him, playing right wing. The press tends to give Sullivan and Newlove a lot of the credit and the right-hand side gets forgotten."

In theory, things might be better for Smith next season, when Kevin Iro is earmarked to take over the right centre position. Saints would not pay what it costs to bring Iro back to Britain in order to take all the play the other way.

On the other hand, Saints' recruitment could be very bad news for Smith, because they have also signed Fereti Tuilagi, a specialist right-wing, from Halifax. On top of that, the highly promising 19-year-old, Tony Stewart, can be expected to be knocking on the first-team door next year. It is enough to make a player whose contribution is already frequently overlooked feel distinctly uneasy about the club's plans for him.

"I went to see them to see how I stand and they were adamant that they want to keep me," Smith said. "I know that Ellery Hanley will have his own ideas, but it's obviously better if you've got competition for places."

Chris Smith will have few better opportunities to demonstrate that he is doing rather more than making up the numbers than tonight at Headingley. As a Castleford lad - this is his first year away from his home-town club - victories over the big-city enemy from Leeds have a special savour.

Whether he will taste it this evening depends to a large extent on whether Graham Murray's side have recovered and regrouped after their defeat at Wigan last weekend. Leeds took the sort of physical battering that night that they have routinely handed out to other sides this season. At their most intense, their two victories over Saints this year suggest that they will again be too strong for them; but, if the edge has been taken off them, they will be vulnerable to their opponents' adventurous ball movement and attacking flair.

Saints also have the advantage of an extra two days of rest going into the match, but McRae does not believe that will be a telling factor. "We might have caught Halifax out that way, but I don't think Leeds are the same sort of club."

That resilience will be tested to the limit if Saints can give their backline the ammunition it needs. Even the Smiths will settle for a supporting role if Newlove and Sullivan can again work their destructive magic down the left. "I can't tell you why it's all come right over the last 10 games," Newlove said.

Like his team-mates, he gives great credit to McRae for keeping his attention on immediate priorities, even though he has been, in effect, sacked for next season.

"Everyone's excited about Ellery coming," Newlove said. "But if Shaun goes to the Grand Final and wins it, it's going to be a bit of a bugger him leaving, isn't it?"