Tony Smith: Out of the frying pan into the fire for 'our' blue-chip leader

Tony Smith has come a long way since living above a Workington chippy. Now he is convinced he will lead his adopted country to World Cup glory in Australia. Dave Hadfield talks to Tony Smith

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:27

It was not exactly love at first sight for Tony Smith and the country where he was destined to make his home and his career. Smith, the Australian-born coach who departs tomorrow for the rugby league World Cup in his original homeland, does so in charge of the England squad. It is not an outcome that would have seemed very likely to him when he arrived at Workington 12 years ago.

It was during the first season of Super League that his elder brother, Brian, then the coach at Bradford, asked him to "lend a hand" at the struggling Cumbrian club. He does not romanticise the experience. He was still not match-fit after snapping an Achilles two seasons earlier, the team could not win a match, it never stopped raining and the club put him and his wife in a poky flat above the deep-fat fryers of the Blue Dolphin chippy.

"The smell was unbelievable," he says. "We had to burn all our clothes. In a way, I'm very grateful for the experience, because after that the only way was up."

Smith went home to Australia, where he had been a more than useful stand-off for the Illawarra and St George clubs, and coached in the lower grades at Parramatta. But his slow-burning love affair with his adopted country brought him back here in 2000. He was already due in England as the coach of Japan in the Emerging Nations World Cup, but before that could happen he applied for the coaching job at Huddersfield. You might say that he was a bit keen.

"I paid my own way over here. I just felt I'd be at a disadvantage being interviewed over the phone. Coaching is all about face to face, and they need to see you if you're going to sell yourself."

Smith's investment paid off when he sold himself well enough to get the Giants job. "Sometimes you just have to back yourself. I thought that if I was reasonably successful they might reimburse me one day, but they never did."

He was unable to steer them clear of relegation in 2001 but brought them back into Super League as a revitalised club the following year. Half-way through 2003, however, he decided he was leaving because of the Giants' cash constraints. Leeds got wind of his intentions, decided they must have him and swooped, bringing him in for a highly successful four-season stint which ended with him lifting the Grand Final trophy with his captain Kevin Sinfield.

Midway through last season, he applied for and got the Great Britain job. Although his responsibilities now carry the England label, the objectors still make the same point – an Australian coaching the national team? Surely that can't be right.

Not only has that line been crossed by numerous other nationalities in other sports, it is also old news in league, with another Australian, David Waite, already having done the job.

Smith has further confused the issue by becoming a British citizen, but still faces a periodic grilling over whom he supports at cricket and whether he will sing "God Save the Queen" before matches. "I know the words, because that was still Australia's national anthem when I was at school," he says. "The point is now that I'm entitled to sing it or not sing it, just like any of the players. If I don't sing, it's because I don't feel like singing. The citizenship ceremony was an honour, but the really important thing was the decision that we're not going back to Australia in the foreseeable future – maybe never."

One reassuring promise he can make to those who might otherwise have reservations about his stewardship is that he intends his team to play what might be loosely described as a British style of rugby league.

"I'm excited about the squad we're taking. There's plenty of size and speed. We'll be looking to get in plenty of offloads and play a very high-energy type of football."

Smith's selection bears out that promise. He is taking only four props, relying instead on mobile back-rowers who can push forward if needed. In the backs, he has gone for quick strike players who have hit top form at exactly the right time, in Lee Smith and Mark Calderwood. "I feel we've got the capability to win the World Cup," he says unequivocally.

The first test of that confidence will be in the semi-tropical heat of Townsville against Papua New Guinea on 25 October. With less than meticulous preparation, those opponents in that setting could be a potential banana skin, but Smith has had his players training in an atmospheric chamber that mimics the conditions they can expect.

Smith's coaching is not without its quirks. He can be seen on match days shuffling what look like fridge magnets on an outsized Ouija board. He is not trying to communicate with his British ancestors, it is merely his way of keeping track of who is doing what on the pitch and, importantly, who is waiting to come into the game.

"I don't know why everyone doesn't use one," he says. "There must be a lot of coaches much wiser than me, because I couldn't keep track of everything without it. It's very easy to forget who's on the pitch and who's on the bench."

One decision that Smith has already made is where his players will be after their World Cup is over. Previous trips to Australia have degenerated into a tangle of individual travel arrangements as players' wives and girlfriends have arrived. It's not quite the England football WAGs circus, but he still isn't having any of it.

"I don't doubt that every player in the past has gone there to give his best, but it can be a distraction," he says. "It's not meant to be a cheap way of having a holiday in Australia. We're there to do a job. We arrive together and leave together. I'm not having the embarrassment of bringing the World Cup back to England and there only being four or five players there."

Smith is not inflexible on the matter, as he is making an exception for Gareth Ellis, who will stay in Australia to play for the Sydney club Wests Tigers. Everyone else will be on the plane, with or without the World Cup.

It is a declaration of intent that says a lot about Smith's approach to the job. Or perhaps it is evidence of the Aussie attitude, allied to his British citizenship. He is going back there not merely hoping to win the trophy, but expecting to.

Magnificent seven: England stars to watch

Lee Smith

A player who has really come from nowhere. He is sometimes troubled off the field and was dropped from the Leeds side for part of the season, but he has erupted into irresistible form in the play-offs. Scored two tries in the penultimate match, another and a man-of-the-match award in the Grand Final. He has the valuable asset of being equally at home at wing and full-back.

Maurie Fa'asavalu

Like his coach, he's a ring-in, having played for Samoa in the 2003 rugby union World Cup before joining St Helens. Qualified for England by residence, he is an explosive impact player off the bench who specialises in running ferociously at defences after the sting has been taken out of them by the first wave of forwards. A big-hit merchant in defence.

James Graham

With his red hair and pale skin, there is no mistaking Graham as he rips into the opposition. He has done so to such good effect for Saints this year – particularly when he sets the tempo at the start of matches – that he has been winning most of the game's individual awards. This is his first major trip abroad and he has the ability to surprise forwards from the southern hemisphere.

Mickey Higham

The hooker seemed a million miles from an international recall earlier this season when Wigan decided to unload him. His form since then has spoken volumes for his attitude, while his speed over the ground fits in with the way Smith wants to play the game. No guarantee of a place, but World Cups traditionally throw up some unlikely heroes.

Mark Calderwood

Previously unhappy and out of sorts at Wigan, the winger has exploded into form at the end of the season. His defensive performance at Leeds two weeks ago clinched his place and Smith, who coached him at the Rhinos, says he has equal regard for his try-saving as for his try-scoring. He is also as good as anyone at chasing kicks.

Jamie Langley

The closest thing to a shock selection after a relatively low-key season at Bradford, but he has captained his country successfully at Academy level and has never been far from the minds of the selectors. Can play loose forward or either side of the field as a second-row and is regarded as a natural leader and all-round good influence on the party.

Gareth Hock

Put his place in jeopardy with a five-match ban for grabbing a referee, and is capable of some spectacularly silly things on the field. On the plus side, he has the angular running and the ball skill to break up defences and could be a match-winner against the very best. Smith has decided that the positives easily outweigh the negatives.

Dave Hadfield

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