Exiles' quiet man turns up volume

London Irish's charismatic coach has stolen a march on the rest of the Premiership, taking the perennial underachievers to the brink of a prized play-off place
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Brian Smith describes London Irish as a "humble little rugby club, trying to do its best". What he does not say, partly through good manners that border on the impeccable and partly through a profound suspicion of the slings and arrows of sporting fortune, is that the Exiles have less to be humble about these days than at any point in their recent history. Unlike Saracens, whose volumes speak silence, they are making a good deal of noise extremely quietly. Should they beat Sale in front of the best part of 20,000 spectators this afternoon, however, not even Smith will be able to prevent people noticing.

"I consider myself less a target-setter than a realist," the Australian remarked this week, eight months or so into his tenure as director of rugby. "And the reality is this. Year one is the honeymoon year for someone in my position, but that is all it is - a year. Year two is about shaking up the world, because if you don't, the divorce comes in year three. There are some very special people in rugby who somehow find ways of staying in charge of a club for a long time, but they are few in number and I'm not sure I'm one of them. The way I see it now is that if we haven't achieved something tangible by the end of next season... well, you know the track record in this job."

The track record Smith had in mind was that of the professional club game at large, but he might just as easily have been talking of something closer to home. Some mighty big names have parked their backsides in the boss man's chair at London Irish over the last decade - Sir Clive Woodward, Dick Best and Brendan Venter for starters - but while each of these luminaries offered the Exiles a taste of the alchemist's potion, none of them managed to serve up a full glass. Woodward gave them wings to fly with a whole new style of play; Best recruited brilliantly and was rewarded with a brief sojourn at the top of the Premiership; Venter player-coached them to victory in the 2002 Powergen Cup. These contributions were considerable, but they were also incomplete.

A little over a year ago, London Irish decided completeness was what they were after - that the next step up, towards consistent top-four finishes in the Premiership and regular qualification for the Heineken Cup, should be a minimum requirement rather than a pipe dream. They coaxed Smith away from Japan, where he was working with the Ricoh club in Tokyo, and used the chequebook to beef up their side. Olivier Magne arrived from France, Danie Coetzee and Faan Rautenbach from South Africa, Riki Flutey and Michael Collins from New Zealand, Juan-Manuel Leguizamon from Argentina. These were serious signings. Very serious indeed.

"When I went to Japan, I saw myself cutting my teeth there for two or three years before looking for something back here," said Smith, who won Test caps for both Australia and Ireland during a peripatetic playing career that also took him to Oxford University and Leicester. "The opportunity to return came much quicker than imagined, so I sat down with Ricoh and talked them through it. Basically, I asked them for their blessing, and they gave it me. I was enjoying myself in Tokyo; my wife speaks fluent Japanese and she loved it too. The conditions are good. The people are enthusiastic - an awful lot of good coaches go to Japan and never come back out. But London Irish were very committed to moving forward and the temptation was too great.

"Everything I've requested, I've been given. I say: 'Wouldn't if be terrific if we signed Faan Rautenbach?' Bang, we get Faan Rautenbach. I ask for a new scrum machine, and the scrum machine's there. I suggest it might be a good idea to do a pre-season fitness camp in Poland, where they have this advanced place specialising in cryogenics. Hey, we're in Poland. The support from the management and directors has been total. They have a real desire to turn things around after a couple of difficult seasons and when you're working in a positive environment like this, it's easier to build the confidence that translates to results on a weekend."

Smith places himself firmly in rugby's enabling tradition, as opposed to its preventative one. "I'm in the Brian Ashton camp when it comes to running rugby," he said proudly. "Four tries a game and I'd die happy. To my mind, it's a question of good over evil." It is, therefore, slightly strange that he should first have come to the notice of the Premiership coaching fraternity as the man in charge of Bath's defensive game - a task he accomplished so effortlessly that the West Countrymen set new standards of Scrooge-like parsimony during his time at the Recreation Ground.

Bath supporters were profoundly baffled by his departure, especially as his fellow coaches - John Connolly, Michael Foley, Richard Graham - were fellow Australians. Smith always seemed at one remove from the Queenslanders, though; the atmosphere at the Rec was not prickly, exactly, but there was undoubtedly a sense of distance. Now, Connolly and Foley are numbers one and two in a new Wallaby back-room team working towards next year's World Cup in France. Smith craves the chance to coach in a global tournament and will probably do so soon enough, but 2007 is not on the agenda.

"Australian rugby? It's a shambles," he said in the kind of conclusive tone that should reassure another former Bath coach, the beleaguered Andy Robinson, as he prepares to lead England on a two-Test trip to Wallaby country this summer. "They had a chief executive in John O'Neill who gave the game its vision, its profile, its money. What happened? A faction on the board conspired to get rid of him, so he now spends his time running Australian football, which has never had it so good. We then have another faction getting rid of the first faction and end up with people at the top who know nothing about rugby, but who see to it that Eddie Jones, who knows a hell of a lot, gets sacked.

"They assumed Ewen McKenzie would take over from Eddie, but he said: 'With this set-up? No way.' So they've gone back to John Connolly. He has nothing to lose, I guess, but you can't say it's been a great episode."

London Irish, on the other hand, are having much more fun. They are third in the Premiership, eight points adrift of today's opponents, who have led the way since hostilities commenced in September. Smith is not completely taken with the Exiles' chances this afternoon - "We're limping into this game; half our forward pack is missing" - but he is neither embarrassed by, nor apologetic about, his team's current place in the table.

"It's a true reflection of where we are," he said. "It's not as if we're three rounds into the competition. After this game, there are only four left." For all that, Smith is not obsessed by league position. Far from it. "When we lost to Newcastle recently, it was a good wake-up call," he said. "It reminded me that it's the media's job to focus solely on the table, not mine. I'll put my hand up now and admit that before the Newcastle game, I allowed the win-at-all-costs mentality to get in the way of our performance. I don't want to think about the league table, I don't want to see it. I hate the table. I need to know who's fit, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents we face and arrive at the right strategy. What I don't need to know is where we stand in the log.

"Part of the reason for the turnaround this season is that we've set an optimistic tone. Together with Toby Booth [the forwards coach] I did a lot of the talking at the start of the campaign, but the senior players drive it now and that's a sign of their confidence, their belief, their mental robustness. It's a tenuous thing, but we feel at the moment that we're capable of nailing tight games. We also have an ambition about us, a feeling that if we get out there and score some tries we'll win more than we lose and take the supporters with us." And winning trophies? "That's a different thing entirely, isn't it? There has to be some luck involved, which is not an area you can control."

As Smith infuses the club with his spirit of romantic realism - a contradiction in terms, except in the peculiarly outlandish world of team sport - the possibility of a best-ever league performance grows by the week. The foreign imports are punching their weight, Mike Catt is pulling strings like a master puppeteer in midfield and the academy-bred youngsters, the Shane Geraghtys and Topsy Ojos, are beginning to find their voice. London Irish still have the ability to rise without trace, but those days are numbered. The quiet men of the Premiership are getting noisier.