TWENTY-FIVE minutes spent with revered Australian rugby league coach Brian Smith is like sitting down for a potted history of the sport’s last 25 years – and that’s just the British game.
Being a former schoolteacher, it should be no surprise that the 61-year-old can converse so easily and on everything from octogenarian Hull legend Johnny Whiteley’s lack of Botox to spotting a future Man of Steel in a little-used Leeds ‘A’ teamer called Jimmy Lowes.
At heart, though, he is still a student of the game, even so long into his career and despite being viewed by many younger coaches as someone who imparts the knowledge, a doyen of that most difficult of roles – coaching.
Smith currently is in charge of Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, parachuted in last month to Super League’s bottom club to try and avert what many onlookers believe is an impending relegation.
Having led four different Australian teams to Grand Finals back home, it is a different challenge to anything he has faced before but, having helped the West Yorkshire club to defeat Hull FC last week, their first league win after 16 straight losses, there is growing optimism he can prevent Trinity being dragged down when the new system of Super 8s begins.
Tomorrow his side will face that of his younger brother Tony, the esteemed coach who has carved out his own impressive reputation here with Huddersfield Giants, Leeds Rhinos and present club Warrington Wolves.
It will be the first time two siblings have ever coached against each other in Super League given Brian Smith has been on home soil for most of his career since invigorating Hull in the pre-summer days of 1988 to 1990 and then, for a solitary season in 1996, putting in place the foundations of Bradford Bulls’ later domination when Super League eventually kicked-off.
And he admits tomorrow’s game has never been a source of real interest between the pair of them, given both have traditionally kept the business of their rugby separate.
“Something will come up and eventually we’ll be talking about rugby but it will be about other teams or players not about ourselves or our own teams,” he said.
“But you don’t coach against a coach. You coach against players and with players.
“There’s very little else that comes into play apart from we’ve got lot of things in common and with my brother I’ve got a lot more in common – the same parents!
“Mum might be bit conflicted this weekend and dad I suppose.”
Smith, though, is proud of what his younger brother – Tony is 48 – has achieved in the British game since taking over as Huddersfield’s head coach in 2000 and, most memorably, leading Leeds to their first league title in 32 years in 2004.
Another Grand Final victory arrived in 2007 and he has also revitalised Warrington to guide them to the Challenge Cup three times.
“A lot of people forget or don’t even know that he lost his first 15 games in a row at Huddersfield,” recalled Smith.
“To be fair to the chairman there at the time – and still – Ken Davy, what a decision to continue to support the coach. They’ve never looked back either.
“They went down but they stuck with him, he led them straight back up and, apart from when Huddersfield were really giants way back when in the ‘60s, this is their most successful period for a long time.
“But he (Tony) doesn’t coach in the same way as I do. He’s done it his own way. That’s my thing – coaching is so personal and so much about your own character and behaviours.
“I’m really proud of what he’s done just as his brother. We’ve got a pretty good friendship and I’m treating this (working with Wakefield initially until the end of the season) as a bonus really as I get to know my niece and nephew which I’ve never been able to do. They are 18 and 16 now and they’re great kids.”
If you look across head coaches here and in the NRL, many have come under Brian Smith’s influence at some time; Leeds’ Brian McDermott played for him at Bradford in ’96 as did England coach Steve McNamara who he originally signed as a teenager at Hull while Lowes is, of course, the current Bulls chief. He almost signed Paul Anderson, the Huddersfield head coach, too.
“I tried to get ‘Baloo’ at Bradford but he came a few months after I left,” Smith recalled. “Halifax had him in their ‘A’ team at that stage and I felt like I was going to make another one of those super cheap purchases but they whacked some ridiculous figure on him and we waited til they fell down the girdle, went into liquidation or something, and needed some money.
“We got him at a decent price and now he’s one of those doing well in coaching.”
So who has been his finest signing in more than 30 years of coaching since first taking over at Illawarra Steelers in 1984?
“I sort of jokingly say Jimmy (Lowes) ,” said Smith, about the hooker who couldn’t get a game at Headingley but won the 1997 Man of Steel in only his second season at Odsal.
“The guys at Leeds just didn’t see in him what we did at that point. I used to go sit and watch A-team games with my hat on, coat collar up hoping no one would recognise me and Jimmy played quite a lot of A-team rugby in that season before we bought him.
“From memory, he played stand-off, scrum-half, loose forward, second-row and I think even prop but they just didn’t know where he fitted.
“(Bradford assistant) Matthew Elliott he was probably in on it first but we thought he was going to be the cornerstone of our team. There was so much about him – an uncompromisingly tough competitor, who loved the sport and had a great sense of the game.
“We had him at nine and Robbie (Paul) at half-back. At that point Robbie couldn’t organise the team but he was such a brilliant reactionary player with speed so Jimmy ran it all from dummy half.
“Eventually it’s what most teams do now particularly in the NRL.
“The role of half-back is still important but (Australia hooker) Cameron Smith has come into his own and so many good dummy-halves control the game now. Yet Jimmy was doing that for us in ’96 and ’97.”
Meanwhile, since his unexpected return to England last month, Smith has certainly been able to catch up with Whiteley, the legendary former Great Britain forward who won the Ashes in Australia as player and coach and who remains part of Hull FC folklore.
“Johnny Whiteley was one of my mentors,” he explained.
“He’s one of those extremely unassuming guys in that he doesn’t tell people how good it was way back when but he can talk about the past without making it sound like it was perfect.”
“He’s a marvel even just to look at him. He’s 84 now and there’s no Botox in Johnny Whiteley, it’s all natural! What a wonderful attitude to life.”
Other mentors include the famous NFL coach Bill Walsh, and he is an avid Arsenal fan and would love to spend time talking with Arsene Wenger.
Wakefield is his sole focus for now, though – and preparing his own masterplan.