New life at Leeds may do trick for Stuart-Smith

Faces to follow for 2004: England's Under-21 scrum-half hopes Headingley move leads to next World Cup
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The Independent Online

The way things were going for Clive Stuart-Smith last season, there was a danger of him disappearing without trace, hyphen and all. And before he had fulfilled his tremendous potential.

If rugby union had given him up, it might have helped his progress on another front. David Blaine he ain't, not yet anyway, but Stuart-Smith has discovered another talent when he is not employing sleight of hand with a rugby ball - close-up illusions with cards.

"I am quite into magic, it's something I have always been interested in," says the 20-year-old former pupil of Sir Thomas Rich's Grammar School in Gloucester. But he insists: "It is just a hobby at the moment, I just do a few tricks with cards, although I am building up a repertoire."

Rugby, on the other hand, is no hobby. Nor is it merely a job. It is the very stuff of life for Stuart-Smith, who has ambitions to go all the way, and the 2007 World Cup in France is his prime target.

With the 2003 World Cup and their youth behind them, the present England scrum-halves, Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken, are not going to be around in France in 2007. And while Andy Gomarsall is determined to hang on for the next four years, he is likely to face stern competition from the thrusting youngsters who are only just emerging in the Premiership at the moment. And among those is Stuart-Smith, an erstwhile clubmate of Gomarsall at Gloucester, but now beginning to cut the mustard with Leeds Tykes.

But it has not been an easy journey thus far for Stuart-Smith. As captain of the England Under-19 team a couple of seasons ago, he caught the eye with his assured approach. His Under-21 appearances have also impressed everyone.

The sky looked to be the limit for him. Unfortunately the reality of the Premiership is that winning is everything. The team performance matters. Coaches and directors of rugby are under constant pressure to produce victorious sides. Silverware is the aim because when a side wins, everyone wants to be associated with it.

Everyone loves a winner, particularly the money men. So when a coach has two scrum-halves in his squad, one of them an England international, Gomarsall, the other a teenage rookie, Stuart-Smith, it does not take a committee to work out who plays and who gets to sit on the bench.

Last season, Stuart-Smith started two Premiership games, came on as a replacement four times (once going on to the wing) and spent a further 17 matches watching from the bench. There was no bitterness, but someone or something had to give because, as Stuart-Smith points out: "I knew that this season, after the World Cup, if I had stayed at Gloucester Gomarsall would be back in the starting XV and I would be missing out on the experience I need to develop.

"As a former England scrum-half himself, Nigel Melville was extremely helpful to me when I was at Kingsholm. But I could not put all that help and practice into a real game situation." So he made one of the most difficult decisions of his career to date and left his home city to seek his fortune up north. "I just felt I was going to lose another season when I could have been playing first-team rugby.

"It was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make, but I had a lot of support from friends and family," Stuart-Smith said. He also had a reasonable idea of what he was heading into because his coach with the England Under-21 side was Jon Callard, who is also the first-team coach with Leeds Tykes.

Although he has been frustrated by injury early on, Stuart-Smith has just begun to establish himself as a first-team regular, helped, it has to be said, by injuries to his two rivals at Headingley, Alan Dickens and Ryan Walker.

"I am so glad I made the move. My game has developed fantastically. I am critical of myself and I do know I have a long way to go, but I make sure I take something away from every game I play in and from every training session."

He has a work ethic that will have seen him going out on Christmas Day, à la Jonny Wilkinson, and practising his passing. "I am not obsessive about passing practice, although I stay on after squad training to put in some work. I don't do a set number, say 200, I just do what I feel I need to do and I always make sure I finish when it is going well."

That sort of attitude is what gets you noticed and Brian Ashton, the manager of England's National Academy, is monitoring Stuart-Smith's progress closely. "In last year's Under-21 World Cup, Clive was one of two players, the other being Bath's Matt Stevens, who responded to the intensity and the challenge of this level of competition.

"All he needs to do now is to play Premiership rugby. If he can get a full season under his belt and stay free of injury then I would expect him to be a leading light and to progress to higher things." And if that fails, well there are always the card tricks ...