Tony Smith spoke to Rugby League World on the day he was unveiled as the new coach of Great Britain (and England) in 2007.
AFTER weeks of speculation, Tony Smith has emerged as the man who will attempt to succeed where David Watkins, Peter Fox, Eric Ashton, John Whiteley, Frank Myler, Maurice Bamford, Malcolm Reilly, Ellery Hanley, Phil Larder, Andy Goodway, David Waite and Brian Noble have all failed. That is, of course, to take the Great Britain Rugby League team to the top of the international tree for the first time since Jim Challinor’s success as coach of the victorious 1972 World Cup squad.
The coach of Leeds Rhinos is about to begin a two-and-a-half-year contract with the Rugby Football League, on a part-time basis until the end of the current Super League season, when he will then move into full-time status in preparation for England’s assault on the World Cup in 2008. To add two more names to the above list, Alex Murphy (1975) and John Kear (2000) have been unsuccessful coaches of England in World Cups.
Smith’s tale is an interesting one. He was little other than a mediocre stand-off half in Australia’s Winfield Cup, playing 41 times for Illawarra Steelers between 1987 and 1991, including the 1989 Panasonic Cup final 20-22 loss to Brisbane Broncos, a game most remembered for Andy Gregory’s exceptional performance at halfback for Illawarra and the crowd giving Wally Lewis 80 minutes of abuse. He moved on to St George, coached by brother Brian, where his 47 appearances included the 1992 and 1993 Grand Finals, both of which were lost to the Broncos.
He also endured a largely forgettable nine match spell in the inaugural English Super League in 1996 after joining a Workington Town team, marooned at the foot of the competition. After a promising debut in a televised 18-18 draw with Halifax, Smith played behind a beaten pack on a weekly basis and returned home as Town were relegated but the seeds of his coaching career were sewn as he briefly assisted beleagured Head Coach Ross O’Reilly. Brother Brian, coach of Bradford Bulls, correctly pointed out at the time that, “Tony will make a far better coach than a player and that’s something for a guy with so much Winfield Cup experience.”
The jocular sibling rivalry was also underlined when, on the eve of a Super League clash between the two sides, Brian remarked, “when I finally go, I want to be cremated and my wish is to have my ashes scattered from the South Cliff at Sydney. As they flutter down into the surf, I don’t want to hear this voice saying, ‘remember that day at Odsal…?'” But he needn’t have worried as Town were thrashed 52-4.
In 1997, the Smiths returned to Australia where Brian became Head Coach at Parramatta and Tony took up employment as assistant to Rod Reddy with the now defunct Adelaide Rams in the Australian Super League. Smith looked back over his coaching career with Rugby League World.
“Adelaide were a new club in an AFL playing state. Rugby League was relatively small there but it was a good experience and a different one. We were trying to promote Rugby League as well as coach it but I like doing that; promoting my love of Rugby League so it tied in with me. Rod Reddy was the first coach to give me a chance and at one stage there was a query that I could become the Caretaker Coach after he’d been sacked. But I’m proud of the fact that I said “no way.” If they were going to sack him then I was going too. Loyalty and standing by those close to you are very important.”
Brian was also publically critical of the Rams treatment of Reddy and wasted no time in recruiting both Reddy and his younger brother onto the Eels coaching staff.
“I went to Parramatta for a couple of seasons to work with my brother. I’d worked with him before when I played with St George under his coaching but to be on the same coaching staff as him was an absolute privilege and I learned so much. It set me up to be a Head Coach. He’s been a mentor, an influence and a damned good bloke.
“I was learning off him even before that though. We discussed things all the time and when you’re someone’s brother, you see how they deal with things and we’d talk football at family dinners, mulling over the week’s goings on.”
As Parramatta enjoyed a much improved 1998 campaign before losing one of the great semi-finals to Canterbury, Tony was credited with a lot of the success. Was he dealing more with the team, while his brother, previously Chief Executive at the Bulls, took a less hands-on approach to coaching?
“No, he was quite definitely the Head Coach and, along with Alan Wilson who was also on the staff, we all played significant roles. He was very trusting and handed over more responsibility as it was earned. That’s his way of nurturing and bringing on coaches and I try to do the same. I learned that off him and I think it’s important to bring on your assistant coaches and help them develop and become head coaches.”
By 2000, Smith was hungry for a Head Coaching role and paid his own air fare to be successfully interviewed by perennial Super League cellar-dwellars Huddersfield in August 2000 with the season almost at an end. In 2001, the Giants finished bottom of the Super League for a fourth straight year and, with promotion and relegation restored, they went down to the Northern Ford Premiership.
“I knew they’d been bottom for the three seasons and I knew there was a chance they’d be bottom again for a fourth year but I was ready as a coach to take that chance. I’d been an assistant for a few years and, by that stage, I felt I was ready. My first year there was one of the most enjoyable years of coaching I’ve ever had. We went very close but failed and went down. It was a blessing in disguise for the club that we were able to cut some ties in various places and re-build. I’m very proud of the time that I spent there and I was very grateful to be given the opportunity.
The Giants retained a full-time squad and breezed back into Super League, only dropping a point at Whitehaven along the way before a tenth-placed finish back in Super League in 2003, with wins against St Helens, Wigan, Leeds and Hull, saw Smith catch the eye of Leeds supremo Gary Hetherington.
“We had a terrific squad at Leeds and did particularly well in that first year winning the Super League Grand Final. The second year, we did well again apart from a couple of finals. We were disappointed about that but, having said that, not many teams get to finals and we were proud to do so, although on each occasion we could have done a little better.”
A trophyless season in 2006 and an unconvincing start to 2007 have followed but in landing Leeds’s first Championship since the seventies, Smith’s four years at Leeds should be remembered fondly whatever the outcome this season as he embarks upon his international coaching career despite criticism from some quarters, most notably Rugby League World columnist Garry Schofield, for his achievements since that Grand Final win.
“I don’t read the Rugby League papers. There are so many differing opinions which probably confuse people. I believe there are a lot of positive people out there but equally there are a lot of negative people. I tend to steer away from the negative people and hopefully the players will too. It’s really important that the place unites. When they read certain people’s opinions, it probably deflates players and that doesn’t do the national team any good.”
Smith is promising the British fans little, pledging only to “try hard” for the time being but expressing a desire to restore credibility to the national side.
“Credibility is strong on my agenda. There are many good players and coaches in this country and that’s sometimes underestimated by many people. I think that to wake people up, the national team has to do well.”
So, who did Smith want to win when the Lions faced Australia in last year’s Tri-Nations?
“Since I’ve been here, it’s been very much Great Britain for me. I’ve had more to do with the Great Britain players and I’ve been involved with coaching some of them. Undoubtedly, I’ve supported Great Britain since I’ve been here and I can hold my hand on my heart about that. The cricket’s been a different story though and I copped some flak over that when we lost the Ashes!”