POLARISING: Brian Smith parted company with Wakefield Wildcats this week. Will he coach again at professional level?HAS Brian Smith coached his last game of professional rugby league?
If the answer is “yes”, there will be plenty who say “about time” and“good riddance’’.
Sporting Declaration is probably one of the few people in Newcastle who would beg to differ.
Typically, when Smith parted company this week with Wakefield Wildcats, it was in controversial circumstances.
He was reported to have unexpectedly resigned, effective immediately, prompting club chairman Michael Carter to reveal: “I was a little stunned.But, by his manner, you could tell it was a decision that wasn’t going to get changed …we’ve had a frosty relationship since Christmas.’’
In that case, it is certainly notthe first “frosty relationship’’ of a coaching career that started with Illawarra Steelers way back in 1984.
The 61-year-old has endured many highs and lows along the way, and at times attracted fierce criticism and some lifelongenemies.
But for mine, he has never received the credit he deserves, not least for histhree-year stint at the helm of the Knights.
The critics will point to the fact that Smith was never able to win a premiership. But I find that a simplistic view, especially when you consider the teams at his disposal.
With the benefit of hindsight, the four sides Smith steered to grand finals (St George 1992 and 1993), Parramatta (2001) and the Roosters (2010) always had the odds stacked against them.
The Dragons twice finished runners-up to a Brisbane Broncos line-up that was almost an unofficial Test team.
The Eels ran into a future Immortal called Andrew Johns, surrounded by a handy support cast includingBen Kennedy,Matt Gidley, Robbie O’Davis, Timana Tahu, Steve Simpson and Adam MacDougall.
And the Roosters did well to lead St George Illawarra, the dominant team for two seasons, at half-time in the last game of the year.
Smith’s zero-from-fourrecord in premiership deciders pales alongside his arch-rival Wayne Bennett, who came within one tackle of eight-from-eight before Johnathan Thurston conjured up an act of Godlast season.
But Bennett has never mastermindeda turnaround as remarkable as Smith managedin taking the Roosters,2009wooden spooners, to the grand final a year later, which surely rates as one of the great coaching feats of the modern era.
Perhaps the only thingBennett and Smith havein common was that they were unable to deliver the success Newcastle fans craved.
Bennett guided the Knights to the 2013 grand final qualifier, but in 2012 and 2014 they were shot ducks by the time those seasons had reached the halfway point.
Whereas Bennett imported a host of big names and tried to give the Knights a silvertail makeover, Smith favoured a bargain-basement recruitment policy.
Most of the players he signed for Newcastle were either unknown orunfashionable, such as Zeb Taia, Cooper Vuna, Mark Taufua, Junior Sa’u, Isaac De Gois, Matt Hilder, Chris Houston and Richie Fa’aoso.
None of them were champions, but it is hard to deny they provided Newcastle with great value for money.
And what is too often forgotten is that the Knights, during Smith’s tenure, were making progress.
His first season, 2007, admittedly was a disaster.
Three games into that campaign, Johns was forced to retire. Other injuries to key players decimated Newcastle’s ranks, and morale plummeted when it became obvious a host of long-serving veterans would not be retained.
All things considered, it was a minor miracle that the Knights were able to avoid the wooden spoon with a last-round victory against Wests Tigers.
Yet 12 months later, they finishedwithin one win of the play-offs.
The following season, 2009, Newcastle’s improvement continued. After seven wins in the first 10 rounds, they were second on the points table.
In the process, they had beatenManly, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Canterbury and St George Illawarra, all of whom subsequently featured in the play-offs.
Butjust as Knights fans were daring to dream of reaching the finals, and perhaps doing some damage, news broke that Smith had signed a four-year deal with the Roosters.
Three successive losses followed, and then Smith was sacked.
The rebuilding project he had beenoverseeing was handed over, incomplete, to his assistant Rick Stone.
Few Knights fans have anysympathy for Smith, but sometimes I wonder what might have been hadthe clubre-signed him long term, hence removing the temptation to explore other opportunities.
As new Knights coach Nathan Brown noted last week: “The reality is, wherever Brian has been, clubs have been successful and made grand finals. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen in Newcastle.’’
Many would say Smith simply wasn’t the right fit for Newcastle. To that I would respond by pointing to the past few seasons and asking simply: “So who is?’’