On Saturday, October 27, Tony Smith will take charge of Great Britain for the first time in a Test series when the Lions tackle New Zealand at the Galpharm. It’s the latest challenge for the Australian, who began his career at Huddersfield seven years. Here, Rugby League writer CHRIS ROBERTS takes a look at the journey taken by the man who now holds the top coaching job in the British game.
IN late 2000, a relatively-unknown Australian stepped through the front door of the Galpharm Stadium for the first time.
The former Parramatta Eels assistant coach had taken the gamble of paying for his own air fare to be interviewed for the vacant head coach position at Huddersfield Giants.
The interview proved successful, and Tony Smith had announced his arrival on the British rugby league scene.
Within three years, he had finally helped establish the Giants as a serious Super League side, laying the firm foundations for Jon Sharp to take the squad to the next level, before moving on to take on one of the most high-profile roles in the game – head coach of Leeds Rhinos.
Once again, Smith proved a success, helping Leeds win their first piece of silverware for 30 years when they lifted the Super League trophy at Old Trafford in 2004. All being well, they’ll beat St Helens in this Saturday’s Super League Grand Final.
And that would be the perfect way for Smith to sign off his time at Rhinos.
As soon as this weekend’s showdown is over, Smith will take over as coach of Great Britain full-time, and he will begin the final countdown to this autumn’s three-Test series against New Zealand.
It promises to be a huge challenge for the former Huddersfield chief, with his first major test taking place on Saturday, October 27 back where it all began – the Galpharm Stadium!
Smith may have taken charge of the Lions against France in a one-off mid-season Test at Headingley in June while he was still in charge of the Rhinos.
And he is also in charge of the Northern Union Centenary clash against the New Zealand All Golds at Warrington next Saturday night, which is effectively a Test warm-up.
But he knows it’s the game at the Galpharm which really signals the dawning of a new era, and the fact his first major challenge is back in Huddersfield hasn’t gone unnoticed on the affable Aussie.
“I always enjoy coming to the stadium, and I know October 27 will obviously be no exception!” he said.
“It will always be a special place for me because of my three fantastic years at the club.
“So leading out the team at Huddersfield will be a very special moment.
“When I first arrived in the town seven years ago, going on to become coach of Great Britain couldn’t have been further from my mind.
“At the time, I was just grateful to be given the chance to be head coach of a club in the top-flight of British rugby league.
“I felt this was the time to prove what I could do and I was determined to give it everything.
“All that mattered when I arrived here was doing my very best for Huddersfield Giants.”
But, ironically, his first coaching role in England was to be at international level.
That came in late 2000 when he took charge of Japan in a game against Morocco at Hull KR’s Craven Park. His side lost.
It was to be the start of Smith’s coaching journey in the English game.
“I remember the occasion, but I can’t remember who Japan played or what the score was,” he added.
“But I do remember that people mistakenly thought I’d been given this position with Japan to help me gain the necessary qualifications to become head coach of the Giants.
“I did, in fact, get the position on the back of a previous rule where assistant coaches from the Australian NRL could be a head coach in Super League.
“Being coach of Japan was something I’d been approached to do in Australia, and I was happy to accept the challenge.
“So, I still had some commitments with them when they came to play their game in England, and I was honoured to help out.
“As I said, I can’t remember any details about the game, because a lot’s happened since then!”
That, of course, is something of a major understatement.
On February 11, 2001, Smith took charge of the Giants for the first time, helping them secure a 28-6 Challenge Cup triumph over Featherstone Rovers at the Galpharm.
Unfortunately, at the end of the season, the Giants were relegated, but came straight back up the following year after remaining unbeaten.
He then helped the Giants finish eighth in Super League before taking over at Leeds, with the Grand Final success in 2004 the obvious highlight.
But earlier this season, Smith was named the new Great Britain coach on a full-time basis, starting from next Monday.
And he just can’t wait!
“It’s been an incredible journey to get here, and I really have enjoyed every minute along the way,” he continued.
“As I said, I will always be eternally grateful for everyone at Huddersfield for giving me the chance to establish myself as a coach in England.
“This really is a fantastic club and will always be close to my heart. The fact the town is the birthplace of the game makes it even more special.
“But that’s all behind me now.
“My No1 priority – after Saturday, of course – will be Great Britain.
“British sport is in a pretty healthy state right now, with the rugby union players, cricketers and Lewis Hamilton in Formula I springing to mind.
“We want to follow suit in rugby league.
“Our sport is in a very healthy state, the healthiest it’s been since I arrived here.
“It’s obviously my aim to take it to the next level – and that starts by trying to beat New Zealand in the Test series and then hopefully securing success in next year’s World Cup in Australia as England.
“We have a lot of quality players in this country and we’ll be doing everything within our power to win this series.
“It promises to be a great battle between two fantastic sides and, personally, I can’t wait!”