Wednesday 20 September 2017

'I probably shouldn't have played for Ireland'

Peter Bills

Somehow, intriguingly, Brian Smith's links with Ireland continue to infuse his rugby life. And, in the week when an Irish team from a quite different era meets England at Twickenham tomorrow, Smith made a revealing confession about his own days in the Ireland side.

"Perhaps now, when I look back, I feel that I shouldn't have done it," says the Australian of his brief spell as an Irish rugby international. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, I have to admit, I wasn't that happy with the way things panned out in the end."

But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since those times, both for Ireland and for Brian Smith. He concedes he is enjoying the England job as much as any he's ever known in his coaching career. "It's probably my biggest challenge, but I know these things don't last forever. So I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to contribute."

And what of tomorrow at Twickenham when Ireland meet an England team thus far unbeaten in the 2010 Six Nations?

Smith smiles. "It will be a great occasion. This is the defining weekend in the Championship and the challenge for us is, what is on our plate is a big task. Ireland were deserved champions last year and are a genuine force, a quality outfit. We are going to have to find our best game to handle them," says the attack coach.

"We are nowhere near where we eventually want to be. Our execution against Italy in Rome was a bit sloppy and the boys are annoyed that they left opportunities out there. We could have had four or five tries. But we feel we are a better side than we showed in Italy and we have made some real progress from this time last year. We think there are better performances ahead of us. But now comes the test of that, a match against Ireland."

Distorted

Smith's views on the heavy defeat Declan Kidney's men suffered in Paris are interesting. Read too much into that, he cautions, and you may end up with a totally distorted picture of the Championship.

"France had one of those days, it was a purple patch for them. If they perform like that for the remainder of the Championship, it is very hard to say who could stop them. So the rest of us have to hope the French have had their peak performance of this tournament.

"But you don't control your own destiny in the Six Nations because there are 22 opponents trying to ruin your plans. A lot of things really fell into place for the French that day, but it is not the norm to do that two matches running."

Besides, there was another country capable of producing that type of all-embracing performance, he thought. Ireland.

"I am sure Ireland has a performance like that in them in this Championship. But it is very difficult in international sport to deliver those sterling performances every week. It just doesn't happen like that. But Ireland are certainly a team capable of one of those sparkling displays.

"There were a few errors from them in Paris that normally you wouldn't see from an Irish side. But there will be a backlash in their next performances. They are a lot better than their display in Paris showed. So, I don't read too much into that Paris performance. Ireland will know they are a better team than that."

Between 1989 and 1991, Smith won nine caps for Ireland as an out-half. He was in the UK, first studying at Oxford and then playing for Leicester. An Irish qualification was unearthed and the then 23-year-old blond-haired Aussie went for it. It's fair to say the scars that decision created took a good while to heal. Perhaps it is only now, almost 20 years later, that Smith feels fully able to discuss openly the emotions and ambitions that drove him in that era.

As he helped prepare England for tomorrow's Six Nations clash at Twickenham, Smith confronted some of the demons that arose from his initial decision.

"Do I have regrets at some decisions I made? Yes. But I had to make a difficult decision as to whether I would go home (before the 1991 Rugby World Cup) or remain with Ireland.

"The truth was, I always wanted to go home and play rugby league. League was the Everest I wanted to climb. My brother was with Balmain (the Sydney rugby league club) and Alan Jones, the ex-Wallaby coach, worked there too, so it was a natural place for me to go."

Ireland, as Smith's critics saw it, were left in the lurch by his untimely departure just before the World Cup.

Some never forgave him; others shook their heads in disappointment at the timing of his decision.

"The idea of selecting someone from the southern hemisphere was a first for Ireland," he remembers. "And it has taken me a while to appreciate the experience I had there. I recognise that there were those who didn't agree with the way things went down.

"But it was still a good experience. I played in lots of big places in Europe and I have good memories of that. But it's true, perhaps now when I look back, I feel I shouldn't have done it.

"I remember bouncing things off Brendan Mullin, who had also been at Oxford. It was a blind ambition on my part really -- I wanted to play on the big stage and was committed to a three-year course at uni.

"At that stage, different people were doing that sort of thing, like Jamie Salmon, who had played for New Zealand and then represented England, plus Eric Melville, the South African who represented France. So it wasn't uncommon.

Regretted

"But when you are 21 or 22 you don't always make the best decisions. The way I left, I regretted.

"It is probably something where I am glad I had the experience, but my concern is that it did more damage than would have been best. And anyway, looking back, it was a bit unnatural. But when you are young you want to play in Test matches.

"However, in my heart of hearts, I always wanted to take the rugby league challenge, so perhaps I should have just gone home. I had good reasons for going to league -- I had been at university, didn't have a cent (remember, this was still the amateur era) and there was this big, juicy rugby league contract being offered. It was a wonderful experience... with Ireland... but I do regret the way it all ended."

In Brian Smith's assessment, there are four very good teams in this tournament, some at different stages of development. Ireland, he says, are at a very mature stage in contrast to a largely new England team.

As for tomorrow's all-important showdown, Smith insists the Twickenham factor is "a massive advantage" for England.

He says they struggled to lift their momentum in Rome, yet points to their performance at Twickenham against Wales on the opening day of the season as evidence of the home factor.

"The support for us in the Welsh game was brilliant. We had to create our own buzz in Italy, so Twickenham is a great advantage for us. But we still know we are going to have to play better than we have so far to be in with a chance."

Irish Independent

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