Brian Smith has this week publicly admitted that he would be a fool to pass up the opportunity of becoming England’s backs coach. Whilst remaining faithful to London Irish and saying that any move would only be with their consent, it is a firm step forward for Martin Johnson in securing his man.
And what of Smith? What makes him so highly admired amongst the game’s elite? Just a glance at London Irish’s form of late gives a hint of the impact of his arrival three years ago: after consecutive finishes of 9th, 8th and 10th in the Guinness Premiership, Smith arrives and the exiles finish the campaign in the dizzy heights of 3rd spot. Follow that up with 6th place and European qualification in 2006/07, and an unfortunate last-day malfunction at Edgeley Park this season to just deny them a third consecutive Heineken Cup.
Now to the range of back play that Smith brings to the team. I don’t think many people would deny that the pace, consistency, ingenuity and sheer class that the regular back three of Tagicakibau, Armitage and Ojo demonstrate week in week out, is of the highest quality in the premiership. As a cohesive unit that does the basics as well as it does the awe-inspiring, I can’t think of a rival in English club rugby. This attack-focused unit is moulded around a creative midfield of Catt, Geraghty and Mapasua. Yes, Smith has a wealth of talent to play with, but it takes a master puppeteer to make the characters dance the same dance.
London Irish have honed their back play over the past few seasons and gained a consistency that belied them in their earlier years, without diminishing their flair, creativity and sheer cheek. For this, all eyes (and praise) turn to Brian Smith. Only Ashton when he rejoined Bath before his England move had such an impact on a backline. There are similarities too. Watching an Ashton-inspired Bath was like watching children let out after doing their homework with the words ‘just go and play and most of all, have fun’. Passes behind the goal-line became as common-place as boot-to-ball, yet without necessarily increasing risk. If things went wrong, it was a case of reverting to Plan A and booting the ball to touch, and at least they had a go. After all, an overlap is an overlap wherever you are on the park.
Smith has brought the same enthusiasm to London Irish and achieved that elixir of the modern game: ‘eyes-up-rugby’. Oh to inject some direction and creativity into the stodge of the England backline. If selection of coaches is carried out in the same way as it (supposedly) is for players, i.e. those on form get picked, then you can see why Johnson has placed Smith at the top of his Wanted list.
What do you think – is Smith up to the job? Should England go all-out to secure his services from London Irish? Is there anyone else you think would do a better job?
By Justin Aylward