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The second coming of Brian Smith

THE CALL from Kevin Clancy back in February took him by surprise, but the timing was perfect.

Brian Smith decided he needed a new challenge after resigning as England’s attack coach following a poor showing at the World Cup. He travelled to his native Australia to check out some options, but while he was there he took a call from the other side of the world.

It was London Irish’s vice-chairman with a job offer. Clancy said the Exiles were undergoing some significant changes and they needed an experienced head. For Smith, the offer represented the desired new challenge in the company of old friends.

“At some point last season it was felt that things needed to change and the board asked Kevin to give me a call,” says Smith.

“I was back in Brisbane having a look at some opportunities in Australia. I didn’t have any hesitation in accepting the offer. It was a very pleasant surprise.”

Almost four years had passed since Smith’s reign as London Irish director of rugby finished with his appointment by Martin Johnson to England’s coaching staff.

But with head coach Toby Booth leaving London Irish to join Bath at the end of last season, Smith has returned to the hot-seat.

There has been a lengthy to-do-list for the 45-year-old to work his way through: fourteen senior players have departed and a new coaching team has had to be assembled. He’s been here before, however.

“It’s very similar to the job the board asked me to do when I first came in back in 2005,” explains Smith, who first came to London Irish from Japanese club Ricoh.

“We started with a fresh backroom staff then and I think we had a turnover of 16 players that summer.

“So I’ve been through it before and I believe I know what’s required to be successful in the Premiership. I’ve been around the track so I think I know how to get it done efficiently through experience.

“The whole club realises that the team we built in 2005 – the Bobby Casey era – that’s signed off now. The feeling at the club is we’ve punctuated that era. Now we’ve got to build going forward.”

Following their Premiership final appearance in 2009, London Irish have had to settle for three successive mid-table finishes. Last season they endured a run of seven straight losses between February and April.

There’s an appetite for success at the club and Smith knows he’s expected to satisfy it. He brought Irish to a Heineken Cup semi-final in 2008 and is credited with building the side that came to within one point of being crowned Premiership champions a year later.

A largely new-look London Irish team will take to the field for the start of their 2012-13 Aviva Premiership campaign against Saracens on September 1. But the problems that hampered them last season need to be addressed first.

Only Newcastle and Sale Sharks conceded more points than the Exiles last season; Irish generosity is a characteristic Smith doesn’t want associated with his team. So he has recruited one of the best in the business to eradicate it.

Highly-respected Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards will be entrusted with the responsibility of filling in the holes in the London Irish rearguard, while Glenn Delaney has left his role as Nottingham director of rugby to coach the forwards.

“If you have a look at the issues we had last season, the first thing you’d probably pick out is that we conceded over 500 points,” says Smith.

“But we believe we’re taking the most positive action we possibly can to remedy that by bringing Shaun Edwards in. He’s probably the best defensive coach in Europe, if not the entire international scene.

“We were conceding an average of two tries per match last season but if we can cut that down to one, we’ll win 80 per cent of our games.

“Glenn Delaney has come in to organise the forwards; we’re looking for a big improvement in our scrummaging and driving play and that’s an area of the game he specialises in.

“If we can also make discipline the cornerstone of our season we can definitely get to where we want to be.”

So where do London Irish want to be? More importantly, with so many new faces coming in, where can they expect to be?

It’s a long-term project for Smith, a significant proportion of which is geared towards maximising the fruits of an already flourishing academy. However, that’s not to say he’s happy to bide his time en route to the top.

There’s already plenty of talent in the existing foundations, but the ranks have been bolstered by the return of Shane Geraghty and new arrivals Tomás O’Leary, Ian Humphreys, George Skivington and Scott Lawson.

“If we get off to a flying start to the season I think we’re going to be a real handful. But there are a few things in sport you can’t legislate for, like injuries and that sort of thing.

“Am I comfortable with the squad we’ve got? Do I think we can be competitive? Yes. Definitely. There are no excuses. I know the buck stops with me. I’m comfortable with that.

“I believe we’ve put together a very competitive squad and we’ll compete in every game we play. We want to win things and we can’t do that by going into games half-hearted.

“We’ve only had one summer to start our recruitment policy but in 12 months’ time, when we’ve had a chance to retain players and have another dip into marketplace, I think we can be an even stronger squad.

“I’m not trying to sell the message that we’re looking to buy ourselves time – and this is a rebuilding phase – but our supporters pay for their season tickets, they’re entitled to say what they want.

“As a club we need to be accountable to our supporters and we’re really lucky to have a very loyal fan-base.

“Over the next six months I think our supporters will see that we’re trying to create something special here. But the price you pay for getting better in any walk of life, whether it’s sport or business or your personal life, is disappointment.

“We’re going to have disappointments along the way but it’s how we respond to them that will determine the level of success we reach. As long as we understand that, I don’t think we’ll lose too many games and I believe we can win trophies at this club.”

London Irish’s academy has provided the senior side with an abundance of stars over the years and maintaining that production line is one of Smith’s priorities.

Alex Corbisiero, Delon Armitage and Nick Kennedy are the most recognisable examples. But recent England call-ups Jonathan Joseph and Jamie Gibson are ready to follow the same path.

“What we’re trying to do is have some kind of vision for our recruitment policy. It’s all going to start in the academy, in terms of making sure we’ve got kids coming through the production line who understand the values of the club and how London Irish wants to play.

“With regards to our recruitment policy, we are an English club playing in an English league so most of our players have got to be English-qualified.

“We want to have an Irish flavour because that’s our heritage and it’s very important we acknowledge that. We’re always looking for world-class players but we want to have an Irish contingent in our playing roster so that we are what we say on the tin.

“We’ve also got some young players coming from provincial academies in Ireland so we are looking at re-establishing our links with Irish rugby. We’re doing the same with the amateur club by trialling a couple of kids from the Wild Geese.

“The message we want to send to all the kids in south-west London is that if you want to play Premiership rugby, you can come down to London Irish as a six-year-old, play all the way up through the grades and you can get a shot at a professional contract at the end.

“Every pre-season we’ll take a number of amateur players and give them a trial. If they’re successful at that stage we’ll contract them after that.”

But producing talent comes with its own challenges. When a young unknown becomes a household name, the promises of rival clubs threaten to prise prodigies away.

Corbisiero, Joseph, Gibson and ace-kicker Tom Homer are all free to leave next summer. So how do you prevent that from happening?

“I think the most important thing for any young player is to make sure they’re in an environment in which they’re challenged to improve.

“We’re trying to make sure we have a squad strong enough to cope with losing a player through injury or by another club coming in and poaching a player.

“We need two of everything. We’ve set up a rugby programme here that’s going to challenge these young players and make them better.

“London Irish has always exposed young players early – I don’t think any club in the league exposes players as early as we do – so I’m pretty confident we can keep our young players.”

***

The 2011 Rugby World Cup wasn’t the memorable experience it should have been for Brian Smith, but the aftermath was even more arduous.

England’s campaign had been shambolic and in a tournament review, the players pointed the finger at the coaching staff. Smith was in the firing line and the reputation he had spent years building came under threat.

The former Ireland out-half, who had stepped down as attack coach following Martin Johnson’s resignation, was heavily criticised in published extracts of the review.

Understandably it’s an episode he’s reluctant to revisit, but does Smith see his return to London Irish as an opportunity to prove that the post-World Cup criticism was wide of the mark?

“No. Absolutely not. You go through different phases when you have disappointment like that. The whole England thing, that’s a chapter in my life that’s finished. I’m over that now.

“I’m not carrying a broken heart or anything like that. This isn’t about me; it’s about London Irish being as strong a club as it can be.

“All the players and coaches have to realise that this isn’t a stage for us; it’s all about the club, winning things for the club and creating a legacy whereby we’re bringing through a supply line of young players who want to play the London Irish way.”

One of Smith’s new signings, Tomás O’Leary holds similar feelings towards last year’s World Cup. The Corkman was a shock exclusion from Declan Kidney’s squad after a couple of below-par displays in the warm-up games.

In recent months, O’Leary hasn’t quite looked like the player who earned a Lions call-up in 2009, but Smith believes the move across the Irish Sea can help the 28-year-old scrum-half rediscover his best form.

“Tomás O’Leary was hung out to dry,” he says. “He was a starting player for Ireland and they came under a bit of pressure in the warm-up games for the World Cup.

“He threw an intercept pass in a game that didn’t go well for Ireland [against France] and he was hung out to dry. But Tomás O’Leary has never stopped being a brilliant player.

“That he was a bit of a scapegoat is something that he can’t control. The only thing he can control is how he plays. Looking at it as a neutral observer, I felt that Tomás probably got a pretty bad deal.

“Now Tomás has a wonderful opportunity. He’s come over here with his fiancée and it’s an opportunity for him to maybe smell the roses and live a different life with the things on offer from the London type of lifestyle.

“He understands that there’s big responsibility in coming here in terms of delivering. I’ve coached against him at international level, I know that he’s a quality player and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he forces his way back into the international set-up.

“With the change of scene and the change of environment, we’re certainly looking to bring out the best in Tomás and we recognise as coaches that that’s our responsibility.”

If London Irish are to achieve success this season, they’ll do so playing an open and exciting brand of rugby. Brian Smith holds tight his beliefs on how the game should be played and it’s a similar philosophy to that of Conor O’Shea – the man who brought Harlequins their first Premiership title in May.

Smith: “I’m personally delighted for Conor O’Shea with the success he’s had at Harlequins. He’s a London Irish man and he’s an incredibly good bloke and the club deserves that success.

“The message going out to the Premiership from that success is that you can win games and you can win championships by playing an attacking kind of rugby.

“I think that’s so refreshing because we’ve had one or two clubs in recent times playing a dreadful kick-chase brand of rugby, which is really soul-destroying for both players and supporters.

“Harlequins have done it their way and I think it’s a great thing for English rugby. I’ll certainly be pointing that fact out to our players. We want to win, but we want to win in style.

“This ridiculous kick-chase rugby has been a negative influence ever since South Africa won the World Cup in 2007. It’s polluted our league and I’m glad that Harlequins have shown the way.

“Leicester were also rewarded for an expansive attitude last season and it was great to see those two clubs in the final. The rugby public and our supporters will demand that we do the same.”

 

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