Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Smith's mantra could trip up Ulster

This time last year London Irish were ranked 20th in Europe with Ulster holding 17th place. Despite an impressive record in the English Premier League last season, the Exiles currently rank 20th, while Ulster occupy ninth position.

There can be no doubt that Mark McCall's outfit have developed into a cohesive and competitive unit with individuals going on to feature on the international stage.

It has been an impressive progression inspired by a professional management team and a self-motivated group of determined players.

In contrast, London Irish has yet to reach the performance levels of an ambitious executive and a visionary coach.

The move to Reading and the Madejski stadium was the first step taken by the club in pursuit of English Premiership renown by the Board of London Irish holdings Ltd.

In 2002, the Board appointed former Irish and British Lions centre Brendan Mullin who subsequently endorsed the appointment of former Irish team-mate Brian Smith as Director of Rugby.

Having played outside Smith in the Irish team, Mullin was fully aware of the dual internationals - Australia and Ireland - creativity.

Ironically, as Smith faces a signal challenge in this year's Heineken campaign, Mullin chose to withdraw from the Irish Board citing work commitments in Dublin.

I was instrumental in getting Smith to commit to Ireland in 1989 - by virtue of qualification through his maternal grandmother - when he was playing for Oxford University.

In my view, supported I believe by his international contemporaries, the young Australian was far in advance in terms of his perception, game awareness and skill execution.

He was a product of an Australian system that took the game to higher levels in World Rugby, yet he displayed an individuality and professionalism that should have led to a formative influence on the development of Irish three-quarter play.

To my shame, following a defeat by New Zealand, Smith lost his place on the team temporarily and never found favour with the Irish selectors, despite some superlative performances after I had departed the scene.

When he eventually returned to Australia he suffered unjustified criticism from the Irish media who equally failed to appreciate his vision.

Following a brief career in Rugby League, he embarked on a coaching career with Union club side Balmain Tigers.

His innovative approach and developmental skills were recognised by his appointment as coach to the Australian Sevens team in 2001, to the New South Wales Under 21 squad and as coaching coordinator of the ACT Brumbies who reached the final of the Super 12 in 2002.

A two year spell at Bath as assistant coach saw the team reach the finals of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup in 2002/3 and the Zurich Premiership final in 2003/4 before he became head coach of Japanese club, Ricoh.

Having served his apprenticeship, Smith bravely set out to change the philosophy at London Irish by committing to all out attack.

Last season his adventurous, some might say foolhardy, approach surprised the other Premiership clubs but, in the modern game the negativists soon adopted strangulation strategies to stifle enterprise - hence the Exiles mid-table position in the Premiership and defeats in the Heineken Cup.

Yet there are worrying signs for McCall's men. The known dangers in the attacking backs - Mike Catt's inspirational play, the centre pairing of Seilela Mapusua and Riki Flutey and the running skills of youngsters Shane Geraghty and Dominic Shabbo - must not obscure the fact that the two lock forwards, Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey lead the Premiership statistics for lineout steals.

And this makes it absolutely imperative that the Ulster forwards must do what they failed to do against Leinster - dominate.

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