When it was put to Martin Johnson that the appointment of Brian Smith as England's backs coach had merely added tothe Leicester takeover of the national side, the manager scoffed: "Brian played 12 games for the club 18 years ago."
Given Johnson's famous flair for trivia, there was little need to rush to the history books to gainsay him. As for Smith, it is the differences he brings to the England party, rather than any Tiger-striped similarities, which give cause for optimism.
Shane Geraghty, the England fly-half who has been coached by Smith at London Irish for the past three seasons, summed up the first Antipodean to be given a crack at livening up the national side's backs. "I think Smithy's approach is very Australian," he said, "as in when you take the ball to the line – even when you're in the forwards – you don't just put your head down. If you don't go through a gap then you play through the line with an offload.
"Smithy's always getting you thinking: 'Right, how can I make it harder for a defence to know what I'm doing?' "
Australia were the masters of back play in the 1980s, the era which spawned Smith, New South Wales-born but brought through by Queensland. He won a blue at Oxford (scoring two tries at Twickenham), played at scrum-half for Australia and fly-half for Ireland in the days when you could swap countries, and swapped codes, too, into rugby league. Smith popped up at Leicester in the 1990-91 season – just for the record, he made 15 appearances – during which he starred with a 20-year-old Johnson in a celebrated 12-0 cup win away to their bitter rivals, Bath. There was also a juicy derby victory at Northampton shared in by Smith, John Wells at flanker and Graham Rowntree at prop – the latter pair are now the forwards and scrummaging coaches for England.
So, yes, it is Tigers Reunited, but it is the curmudgeonly inference that we will get an England team who stick the ball up the jumper and maul their way round the world which bears scrutiny. Wells got his retaliation in first. "Brian comes from a different environment at London Irish and it was important that there was a challenge coming over to the three Leicester mutes in the set-up," Wells said. "I think the harmony and the balance is pretty good." There are certainly more smiles among Johnson's cohorts, which still include Mike Ford as defence coach, than between Wells, Ford and Brian Ashton during Ashton's last days as head coach.
As to the style of play, Wells insists he is as averse to stodge as someone on an F-plan diet. "The characteristic values in English packs have moved on. That type of player is being replaced by a more athletic, agile and mobile player, and that affects how England get results: they can't go out there and beat teams up [any longer]."
If anyone should know that, it is Leicester. They got to two finals last season, deployed bully-boy tactics in both and were royally stuffed by the Ospreys and Wasps in the EDF Cup and Guinness Premiership respectively.
Johnson and his colleagues have spent the past week at Twickenham with the 64 players in the England elite and Saxons squads. There have been medical and fitness tests, and a meeting for each player with the coaches during which a new code of conduct was hammered home. Never mind the alleged bedroom Olympics on the June tour to New Zealand, it was the All Blacks' wit and invention on the field, particularly when returning the ball kicked long, which made England's backs look horribly plodding. There have been only fleeting moments in recent years – against France at Twickenham in 2007 and Ireland last March when Danny Cipriani was at fly-half – to suggest England are capable of anything as accomplished.
"The 9-10-12 combination is important," said Smith, whose London Irish side went from bottom to top of the Premiership try-scoring table in his first season. "They need to drive the attack and, around that, at 13 and in the back three, we need terrific athletes. We want to be innovative and very skilful but we're playing a collision sport. It's no good going wide if we can't win the breakdown.
"I think the new laws are going to help us: playing off more scrum balls than line-outs. We should really be able to do some good things from that facet. Whatwe'd like to do as a back line is threaten in every position. If we can do that we will hold our opposition defender up and give people on the outside a chance to work in some space."
England expect Riki Flutey, the Kiwi convert, to add cunning at inside-centre. They have nominated Mathew Tait to play at full-back for his new club, Sale, under the RFU-Premier Rugby agreement, although it appears Sale's only incentive to do so is a modest financial one.
Smith, 41 and married with a young daughter, Ruby, coaches with a red baseball cap on his head and a statistical back-up to his beliefs. "He'll really get the players thinking about every session," said Geraghty, a rival to Jonny Wilkinson to start in the four autumn Tests while Cipriani is injured. "You get your stats after every game and if, say, you had so many bad passes off your left Smithy would take you into an extra video session. He does have a big influence and it does happen quite quickly."Reuse content