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Smith returns to league and Leeds

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George Riley George Riley | 10:12 UK time, Thursday, 1 April 2010

The plan for this week had been to write a blog giving you an insight into how Radio 5 live's rugby league programmes were being put together for a busy Easter schedule.

Thanks to Lee Smith, and the confirmation of one of the worst kept secrets in the sport, that idea has gone largely out of the window.

I was sat in the pub watching Bayern Munich beat Manchester United on Tuesday evening when a text from a source close to Smith confirmed that, just hours after quitting Wasps, the 23-year-old was back at Leeds on a four-year deal and ready for his second coming in the derby against Bradford.

The possibility of this move surfaced weeks ago as Smith's frustration at reserve team Premiership rugby union grew while the Super League champions' latest title defence began to derail spectacularly amidst a horrific injury crisis.

Smith was back in Leeds over the weekend of 13-14 March when the writing was already firmly visible on the blue-and-amber wall of his union career. With the Wasps players training hard at a crunch time in their season, head coach Shaun Edwards had allowed Smith a week off, which he spent in Spain with his girlfriend.

While to many onlookers there was an inevitable outcome to the England international's limbo, Wasps' reluctance to cut Smith free appeared to have restricted his options to a loan return. But the union club then accepted the pointlessness of straight-jacketing an already reconverted rugby mind, and one call from Gary Hetherington did the rest.

Smith played two games for Wasps before returning to the familiar surroundings of Headingley. Photograph: Getty

As a Leeds boy who took the leap to London to further my career, there was one line in particular from Smith's official press statement that hit home: "I really enjoyed the lifestyle in London but perhaps you can take things for granted when they are on your own doorstep, and I missed living in Leeds."

Clearly the grass wasn't greener on the other side for Smith (although when you compare the Rhinos' and Wasps' playing surfaces, that is open to some debate. However I got that rant out of my system on last week's blog).

The big question is how Leeds have managed to accommodate Smith's return under their salary cap. That is not a question I can answer, although with a very strict wage structure and a lot of kids in the senior squad, it may not be the surprise people think.

What I do know is that Warrington were keen but could not afford him. There was a strong school of thought, too, that Smith could see out the season on loan at Leeds and then sign for the Wolves. Some observers questioned why Smith would have been wanted at Warrington when he did not see eye-to-eye at Leeds with the now Wolves coach Tony Smith. But don't forget it was Tony Smith who picked Lee for England, too. It is fair to say the 23-year-old has fallen on his feet with a new four-year deal at Headingley.

Cynics say that after just two senior appearances, both off the bench, this is yet another league player failing to cut it in union. Chev Walker, Karl Pryce and Gareth Raynor all decided early that the code-switch gamble was a bad one.

For Walker, the move from Leeds to Bath just left him bored and he found little to fill his time. Andy Farrell made it into an England shirt but his switch was hardly a roaring success.

Yet former Wigan winger Chris Ashton is thriving after his move and now seems to be the only Englishman in the union game who knows how to score a try. Shontayne Hape is also flying since being plucked from league.

One fan posted on my Twitter page this week the following comment: "Sounds a little soft running home to take the easy option after only a few months." But you could also argue that it takes a bigger man to hold his hand up and say he has made a mistake, rather than riding it out, picking up the cash and sulking.

His number three shirt at Leeds may have become "28" during his unhappy hiatus, but Smith's stock had probably risen since his ill-fated sortie south. Leeds' travails have underlined how much he has been missed. Could his cocky swagger have softened, too?

"It was weird walking through the gates again," he told me of his return to Headingley.

"I was nervous coming back and a little sheepish around the boys, but they gave me banter straight away at training on Wednesday morning and I got a lot of stick so felt immediately at home." Rhinos coach Brian McClennan reckons Smith's new mild manners may last all of 24 hours before he starts giving the banter back!

The week's other big rugby league headline has centred on the end-game in the appointment of a new England coach.

The media has gone mad with talk of Dennis Betts being appointed this week but I am not entirely sure where the strength of that story has come from. My understanding is that the Bradford Bulls coach Steve McNamara is now the frontrunner, and I would not be at all surprised to see him given the job as early as next week.

The RFL wants a full-time British coach, and if it is a straight choice between McNamara, Betts, Harlequins boss Brian McDermott and Hull FC coach Richard Agar, then I think McNamara will be offered the position.

Bradford finished just outside the play-offs in ninth under McNamara's leadership. Photograph: Getty

That would then throw up all number of issues, such as whether the post will be assumed immediately or at the end of the season prior to the Four Nations. If McNamara is appointed, that would also create a vacancy at Bradford which may well hand Crusaders a fight to keep Brian Noble from returning home. And would that then fast-track the cutting of Iestyn Harris' coaching teeth in Wales? Lots of ifs and buts, yet it is certainly not a dull time to be a Super League coach.

I'll be presenting 5 live Sport live from the St Helens-Wigan derby on Good Friday and I can't wait to showcase our great game to the wider audience. Stuart Pyke, Alastair Yeomans and our production team have been working their backsides off to get the show together. Harris, Gareth Thomas and Paul Sculthorpe will be amongst our guests, and I will blog on the fierce Lancashire derby next week.

And finally, one other great story that caught my eye this week in the Aussie press. Fuifui Moimoi to WWE?


  • Comment number 1.

    George - what makes you think McNamara is a better option than Betts? It seems Sean O'Loughlin has backed Betts' man-management style.

    Also, do you think Gary Hetherington had one eye on the Smith situation when he made the comments about Leeds not being able to bring Ben Jones-Bishop back due to salary cap implications?

  • Comment number 2.

    McNamara england coach?! At least we'll be in the record books for worst international defeat ever.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well that's a step way backwards if England appoint Mcbanana as coach.
    This is the same coach who signed Sheriffe,Sykes,Worrincy and handed Platt a long term deal.
    Get John Kear or Graham Murray.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Sean O'Loughlin has backed Betts' man-management style"

    Well, he made such a good job as caretaker in charge of us didn't he? (NOT!!)

    I don't think McNamara would be that bad a choice - at least we wouldn't have the debacle of Leeds & Stains personnel playing against each other in the same squad again (still can't figure out how Smith thought that would work).

  • Comment number 5.

    If that's the best available for the England job, I'm willing to give it a shot. Seriously!

  • Comment number 6.

    Good blog again George. Nice to see my comments made the blog ;-)

    I think Smith is a good player and has all the potential to be a star in SL for many years to come.

    Regarding my comment, i don't think you can say he is a big man for returning so soon. Like yourself i left my hometown many years ago and know how hard it is to tackle a new challenge in a different city or country.

    I believe once you make a decision to tackle a new challenge you should give it your best shot, there will be tough times but it appears Smith has decided to take the easy way out without giving it a good go. It take a big man to give it a period of time and try and work through the hard times, if it still doesn't work, hold your hands up and say, yes i made a mistake. Lee hasn't done this, he jumped on the first train back to his comfortable life in Leeds.

    God help us if McNamara is the next England coach but i do think the Bulls will bring more misery to the leeds fans tonight ;-)

  • Comment number 7.

    I can just hear him now- 'We've lost 98-0, but there are positives. We managed to stop them reaching three figures and we'll get confidence from that,'

  • Comment number 8.

    Moimoi to WWE?! LOL

  • Comment number 9.

    Lee Smith is a good outside back. Good job he didn't try and prove himself in the NRL, slightly longer return journey home when things don't go your way instantly...

    As for the England job, all of the candidates mentioned, are shockers.

  • Comment number 10.

    George, do u think that the RFL are shooting themselves in the foot by insisting on a full-time coach? Outside of the 4 Nations month, we play 1 game a year. Seems to be restricting the quality of applicants.

  • Comment number 11.

    We don't have enough British coaches that could step up to full time coach-clubs will be too determined to keep hold of them. How about this - use players that are coming to the end of their career that want to make a go of coaching. There's not enough opportunities to get them into full time coaching roles in British clubs. Employ a part time England coach (like McNamara) and twin them with the selected player, train them up to coach the England team and then employ the ex-player in a full time capacity. It means super league (or national league) clubs aren't faced with the prospect of loosing a British coach and having to replace them with yet another Aussie coach. If you start now (with somebody like Kireon Cunnigham), by the time the world cup came around he would be ready to be employed as a full time England coach-problem solved!! Or is this too simple an idea?!

  • Comment number 12.

    hi guys, sorry for the lack of responses thsi week, have been oop north for the derby-day weekend.
    KJWarrior - I'm not saying Steve Mac is a better option than Betts. I am simply giving you the story - my understanding is that is a done deal and Steve Mac will be named the new England coach.
    NonChav-Gav - yes I do. I don't think it needs to be a full time role at all. That's why Smithy walked away. He got bored

  • Comment number 13.

    I know Lees situation may appear that he has just taken the easy choice and come back to leeds but I would like to point out that he has a young son and thought goin to London would be the best choice in order to build a future for him financially but soon realised the time spent away couldnt be compensated by a financial future. He also struggled with adapting the game that he will happily admit. He found that the he wasnt finding his feet with the game, tactics and plays, the offer of coming back was put to him and agreed all round it was best.

    He believes it was the best move for his career and for his family and therefore isnt this the right chice?

    It may be easy for people to comment saying he has backed out of a challenge and so on but he is seeing the move back as one that will enable him more time with his son whilst being in a great position for professional sucess.

  • Comment number 14.

    Could, perhaps, Batley coach Karl Harrison, return from the Super League wilderness to take the Bradford job should Steve Mac take the international hot seat?

  • Comment number 15.

    I've read the blog with interest.
    I'm a bit Union fan but I do enjoy the sheer physical confrontation that happens in League.
    I think the problem with RL and RU players who switch is that the games are different and it takes an exceptional person and player to be able to make a success of the switch. The players I can think of are Jason Robinson, Jonathan Davies - Chris Ashton seems to be going the same way.
    There have been a number of failures and I think it is mainly around people taking the work that is required to switch too lightly.


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