Before the World Cup in 2008, Tony Smith, the England coach, conducted the following ‘My Life In Rugby League’ piece for League Express. The tournament was to be disastrous for the Northern Hemisphere, with England thrashed by Australia and beaten twice by the tournament winners, New Zealand. Smith returned to club coaching and won the Challenge Cup with Warrington in 2009 and 2010.
How big an inspiration was your brother Brian to you in your younger days?
He was pretty important in me getting into the game because my earliest memories are watching him and my other brother, Des, play. They were 13 and 10 years older than me so I was just a kid when they were playing and it was only natural, I suppose, that I’d play too because the family were so into the game. Later when I went to Illawarra, he was the head coach although I didn’t play first-grade when he was there. But when he moved to St George I ended up there too and played under him.
What was your relationship like when he coached you?
We got on fine and we all knew he was a very good coach. The first two years I was there, in 1992 and 1993, we got to the Grand Final twice so things were going well. The players knew that I had to earn my stripes, if not more, and if I wasn’t up to par I was back in reserve grade!
As a stand-off back then you played against some of the game’s all-time greats.
That’s right. I was almost in awe of some of the guys who I lined up against and I remember facing Wally Lewis at a young age which was quite daunting. I idolised Terry Lamb when I was younger and to play against these guys was incredible. But you soon got over the awe – if you didn’t you’d get embarrassed and I received a few lessons on one or two occasions.
Your career in Australia was ultimately affected by injury.
I snapped my Achilles in the 1994 pre-season I came back six months later in reserve grade which was a good experience and we made it to the finals. 1995 was my last first-grade season but I wasn’t near my best at that stage.
What are your memories of playing for Workington Town in 1996?
It was quite an experience! I’d been in retirement for a few months, working as assistant coach at Adelaide Rams but during the Super League war, the courts ruled that we couldn’t actually coach although we’d still get paid. But instead of doing nothing I came to England to do some playing and coaching at Workington. It was a tough task and they had a really limited budget. Their best players, who had got them into Super League, had left and they just had a makeshift team which didn’t improve as the year went on. I broke my scaphoid in my second game which caused me to miss five or six games and the year just didn’t get any better for any of us. But it helped me understand a lot of difficulties that I would later face as a coach and I knew what to expect when I came back to England so I’m grateful for my time there.
What was your involvement with the Japanese national team in 2000?
I was due to coach them in the Emerging Nations World Cup but the Huddersfield job came up instead so I had to relinquish it. I still did some coaching, though, and gave them a hand when they were over here and I’d have loved to have coached them in that tournament.
How tough was the Giants job initially, given that they had recently merged with Sheffield?
I left Parramatta just as they were about to play a qualifying play-off game in 2000 to go for an interview at Huddersfield which I got. But by the time I got there they’d been through a lot of the merger-related stuff and I was grateful for the work that John Kear had done even though it hadn’t worked out for him.
How much of a learning curve was Huddersfield’s relegation in 2001 for you?
Hand on heart it was one of my most enjoyable years as a coach and I learned an awful lot from it. We lost all our games in the first half of the season but if you look at the second half of the season alone, we were the sixth-best team. We refocused and drew a line under those losses and almost pulled it round. Relegation was a hard and bitter time and there was a lot of grief and sorrow but perhaps it was something that had to happen and they’ve since built up a great club. 2002 was a complete contrast though, as we only lost one game all year which was in the Challenge Cup. I’ll be forever grateful for those two completely contrasting years because I was able to take so much from them.
Midway through 2003 you announced you were leaving the club to go to Leeds. Was it a tough decision to leave?
It wasn’t a hard decision to take one of the biggest jobs in the game but obviously I was sad to leave the Giants. But even before Leeds came along I had decided to leave Huddersfield. They had told me there would be constraints on what they could spend on players and I decided it was time for something new.
Initially the arrangement was that you would only coach Leeds for two years and then Daryl Powell would take over again as head coach. Did that not make you think twice?
No, not at all. I was happy to go into that deal and in the end I stayed four years. If I’d had to leave after 2005 I think I’d have found employment elsewhere. All I focused on was that Leeds was a great job and I took over at a great time. They hadn’t won anything for so long and I loved the challenge of turning that around. I was also excited about working with a number of such talented young players. I really enjoyed the youthfulness of the team.
Leeds used to have a reputation for losing big games and after you lost the 2004 qualifying semi-final to Bradford at Headingley, after winning the Minor Premiership, people predicted Leeds to fall short again.
The players weren’t going to let that happen. All that matters is that the team believed in themselves and it’s a great challenge when someone tells you you can’t do something. It was a hard-fought game and very close but I felt we were in control. It was similar in 2005 but the roles were reversed and Bradford came away with it.
Do you regret picking Keith Senior in the 2005 Challenge Cup final?
He trained very well the day before which gave us plenty of indications that he would be OK but in the end it wasn’t the right decision. Either way I thought we were good enough to win and it was a heartbreaking way to lose. We had to learn from it and made some adjustments which was good for us.
How hard was it to take the criticism levelled at you and the players for your performances in 2006 and the first half of 2007?
We never worried about any criticism – we were only concerned with ourselves. If you think about the critics you shouldn’t go into the coaching arena. The team had changed a lot since those early finals and it took a while for the players to get. In 2006 we were disappointed that we didn’t achieve what we wanted to but in 2007 we took a different approach. We built momentum through the year instead of going in strong and burning away. By the end of 2007 we were pretty efficient, even when we lost at St Helens in the play-offs. I couldn’t have asked for any more that night and we went away knowing that they were out on their feet and that we were much more determined because of that loss. Then, of course, the final was just fantastic.
If the Great Britain job hadn’t have come along would you still be coach of Leeds?
I’m not sure but I was ready for a different challenge so it’s hard to say. The Great Britain job was good timing for me but it’s all hypothetical.
Have you enjoyed coaching the national team?
It’s been very enjoyable and a real privilege. I’ve probably enjoyed it even more than I expected to. It’s very different to the week-in week-out work of club football and you don’t know the players as well but it’s such a pleasure to coach a group of people who are so dedicated and determined to do well.
Can you win the World Cup?
That’s what we’re competing for and it’s well within our capabilities to do so. Australia deserve to be favourites but we’re looking forward to the challenge of knocking them off.