Brian Smith: My side of the World Cup story
Coach Brian Smith was heavily criticised in the infamous leaked England player review. For the first time he gives his account
The moment Martin Johnson announced his resignation as England manager in mid-November, the attack coach Brian Smith decided he had no option but to do likewise. "It was Martin who had appointed me, so I felt my position was untenable," he says quietly, reflecting on that supremely difficult moment.
His departure was not confirmed until after the leaking of three post-World Cup reviews – an act that brought the Rugby Football Union to its knees and left Smith, heavily criticised in the published extracts, incandescent with anger at what he saw as a one-sided assault on his professional credentials.
He thought about leaving the country; for a moment, he even wondered whether a career in top-level sport was worth the hassle. Happily, he has spent the last few weeks thinking again.
"I've had 10 good years working here: when you add it all up, I've spent half my adult life in England," says the 45-year-old Australian, who studied at Oxford University, played a season of club rugby for Leicester at the start of the 1990s and joined the national set-up after successful coaching spells in the Premiership with Bath and London Irish. "I have three kids under five, I like living in Twickenham, I'm very happy with the school situation and, yes, I feel I have things to prove. When something like this happens, you question yourself. Of course you do. But I love the game with a passion, I've proved I can coach both defence and attack and I hope I've shown I can run a club as a director of rugby.
"I'd like to think that kind of skill set gives me a shot at getting myself a job here. I'm not desperate – I'm not interested in taking on something that isn't a good fit – and if it turns out that England marks the end of it for me, I'll have no real complaints. It's just that I know I'm a capable coach and I'm keen to stay involved."
Given what he has been through, Smith looks fit and well. He's had to put up with the leaking of players' post-World Cup comments by an individual yet to be formally identified, a calculated and vindictive deed unprecedented in the history of English team sport and deeply hurtful to those who found themselves on the wrong end of unattributed criticisms with no means of rebutting specific allegations. Yet having put some profoundly difficult weeks behind him, there is another difficult week coming up. On Wednesday, the caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster will announce a new 32-man squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. "I know I'll feel disappointed that I'm not still a part of it," Smith admits.
As is it, he must satisfy himself with addressing some popular assumptions – he would call them misconceptions – about England's blighted World Cup campaign and his role in it.
He does not seek to rewrite recent history; indeed, he admits the tournament in New Zealand "turned into a nightmare". However, he believes there are certain myths that need exploding: notably, the idea that Johnson was an arch-conservative who reacted negatively to new thinking, and the commonly held view that Smith lost all the important arguments and quickly became a marginal figure whose theories, tactical and strategic, fell on deaf ears.
"It's an easy thing to say, that there was this Leicester mafia in charge of England and that I clashed with them," he remarks. (Smith may have played a few games at Welford Road, but during his England career he was never bracketed with Johnson, the forwards coach John Wells and scrum technician Graham Rowntree as a dyed-in-the-wool Leicester hard-head). "Things didn't happen the way some people make out.
"Martin was always keen on having round-table discussions about what we should we doing with the team, where we should be taking it, and as far as I was concerned, those debates were healthy. Everyone put their views forward and if they didn't get their own way it was either because their argument didn't hold up or because they weren't persuasive enough. Most of the time, I felt I got what I wanted. I have no issues on that score.
"Did I coach well enough? Did I contribute to the best of my ability? Looking back, I think I did pretty well. Last year, only two international sides scored more tries than England – one was New Zealand, the other was Australia – and we won 10 of our 13 games. I simply don't accept this idea that we produced a stagnant side. We spent a hell of a lot of time planning things, thinking things through. Sometimes it showed, sometimes it didn't, but I never felt we'd stopped evolving.
"I think Martin gave me the opportunity of coaching England because I stood for something a little different – if the other side are zigging, I like to zag – and while results weren't too flash early on, we did make some progress.
"When the leading players went off to South Africa with the Lions in 2009, we did really well in the summer Tests against Argentina. Jeez, we were making 250 passes a game at that point. Then the Lions guys came back, thinking they'd had a great series against the Springboks. And while they had in many ways, the rugby there had been very methodical. That's when I feel our production fell off a little, but we felt it was important to listen to the players, to accommodate them."
If Smith was less comfortable with England's approach during his second season, he remained confident the team could make a decent fist of it at the World Cup. "I felt, like the rest of us, that we had a game plan that could take us deep into the tournament," he says. "The chances were that we'd play France and Australia in the knockout stages, and we were comfortable with that. The All Blacks? We knew that would be tough, but we wouldn't face them until the final unless something unexpected happened. When we left for New Zealand, there was a lot of belief in the group."
So what happened? Was it the Mike Tindall business – the excessive drinking and associated activities following the narrow victory over Argentina early in the competition – that knocked everything out of kilter? "The Tindall thing took on a life of its own, but as coaches we were in our own bubble and didn't realise it was gathering such momentum," he admits. "I had neither the time nor the inclination to read the press, so it never struck me as a major issue until everyone started speaking about it. Yes, it caused a problem, but I don't see it as the reason things didn't work out for us. In the end, we lost control for a 20-minute period against the French, and if you lose control in a World Cup quarter-final you're in trouble."
It had been a brutally tough, emotionally challenging few weeks: leaving aside the torments of the rugby, Smith missed the birth of his third child and the funeral of a close friend during his time in New Zealand. He returned home both bitterly disappointed and acutely aware that hard questions would be asked. "As I was on a fixed-term contract that ended in December, there was always the chance that I'd be out of work by Christmas if things didn't go well," he says. What he did not foresee was the leaking of the reviews, the wall-to-wall coverage of deeply personal criticism – all of it anonymous – and the upset it would cause.
"That episode was very difficult, not least for my wife," he says. "The only good thing was that it didn't affect my kids, them being so young. Coaching isn't a popularity contest. It's like teaching, if it's like anything, and there are always kids in a class who aren't happy about things. Is it the teacher's role to pander to them? No. It's his role to help them realise their potential. I've been on both sides of the fence, so I understand how this works. As a player I sat on benches when I thought I should be playing. I'm familiar with the sting of it, and I felt the same kind of sting in November when all this stuff hit the press. A worse sting, probably.
"People who don't get what they think they should out of a situation... they've always taken potshots and they always will. But yes, I was pretty angry about the way things were presented. I pride myself on being a professional, on being an innovative and creative coach, on being someone who can build relationships with players. When all this happened, a lot of the senior England guys were in touch immediately, giving me their support. I appreciated that."
And now? How long will he give it here in England before he reconsiders the option of heading back to Australia? "We'll see what happens over the next few weeks," he says. "Clubs in this part of the world tend to start thinking in February about the following season, so something might crop up quite quickly. If it doesn't happen immediately, there are one or two things that will keep me busy. My brother runs a television production company in London and I'm doing some stuff for him. I'm also involved in an online rugby project.
"But ideally I'd like to get myself a club gig, if not an international one. For all that's been said and written, there's a sophisticated rugby audience out there and they understand what people can do. When I was involved at Bath, we made a grand final; during my time at London Irish, there were some pretty dramatic changes in the club's fortunes. England had some success too, and while we hit some dry gullies, we ended 2011 with a Six Nations title and a 77 per cent success rate. There can't be too many coaches in the world looking for a job with a record like that."
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