Smith revels in a rare day of freedom

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The Independent Online

The word was that the Northern Hemisphere backline, which sounds like some sort of serious parallel drawn up in wartime, spent most of their abbreviated preparation for this less than warlike fixture sitting around and chatting, rather than venturing near a snowbound training field. Shades of Barry John's simple advice to Gareth Edwards once upon a couple of generations ago: "you throw it, I'll catch it."

The word was that the Northern Hemisphere backline, which sounds like some sort of serious parallel drawn up in wartime, spent most of their abbreviated preparation for this less than warlike fixture sitting around and chatting, rather than venturing near a snowbound training field. Shades of Barry John's simple advice to Gareth Edwards once upon a couple of generations ago: "you throw it, I'll catch it."

Sir Clive Woodward put a brave and annoyingly well-tanned face on it, but really this kind of occasion is anathema to the nominal head coach for the North team. Woodward didn't get where he is today - bossing the Lions to New Zealand this summer - without a specialist advisor in everything from line-out calls to getting grass stains out of socks. He looked quite lonely in his old seat above the Twickenham pitch; instead of the usual massed bands of the technical brigade, Woodward's company consisted of Gareth Jenkins, Brian Ashton and plenty of elbow room.

On such a carefree afternoon in support of a good cause, the mind easily wandered. Would it be great if all rugby could be played this way? That is, without the defensive coaches and the systems and the kicking percentages and the rest of the paraphernalia of the modern era. The correct expression for professionalism in rugby is the open game. Which in itself is a heinous misnomer. The game has never been less open.

Would "King" John have prospered now, as he did when the Lions beat the All Blacks in 1971? How often, for instance, do we see the full range of talent possessed by the likes of Ollie Smith, a natural born footballer if ever there was one? Here the Leicester centre, wearing the blue No 13 jersey of the North, was able to drop his shoulder and fire machine-gun passes behind his back, and generally parade his skills. Most of which are kept under lock and key in regular club and Test rugby.

Smith has three England caps and a similar number of serious injuries behind him which have punctuated his career. At 22 he has time on his side, but is currently having to bide his time with England behind Jamie Noon. This was, in truth, no kind of testing ground for more immediate Six Nations selection or the Lions, but as the nudists on Brighton beach say, any exposure is good exposure. A vacancy exists on the England wing and rests between Smith, Ben Cohen, James Simpson-Daniel and Mathew Tait. Smith did well, and the even younger Tait, who had the England outside centre place at the outset of the Six Nations, clearly relished the chance of rehabilitation.

Tait, though, tried a little too hard. His first chip-and-chase took him headlong into Brian Lima, never a wise move. Then he took a quick line-out to himself and ran into Phil Waugh. Two steps forward, several painful steps backward - the story of the 19-year-old's last few weeks, but he will undoubtedly be back for more.

With Leicester not having a match this weekend - one of eight Premiership clubs who were thus not seriously inconvenienced by releasing players - Smith was supposed to be doing a spot of DIY at home. He shelved the plan to put up some shelves, and built some bridges instead.

Well done to him and the rest of yesterday's cast. In a long and serious season, it provided relief, in every sense.

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