AS a rugby league coach, Wakefield’s Brian Smith has been around a bit.
He coached Hull to Premiership success in 1991 and led Bradford Bulls to Wembley five years later.
Down Under, he has guided teams to four NRL Grand Finals, a minor premiership and been coach of the year, but after all that he believes he is now on the verge of one of his proudest achievements, with Super League’s poorest team.
A 17-16 win at Kingstone Press Championship title holders Leigh Centurions was Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ second successive victory in the First Utility Qualifiers.
If nothing goes disastrously wrong, a dangerous assumption to make where Wakefield are concerned, and they can see off lower division opponents Halifax and Sheffield Eagles, Smith’s team will be at least guaranteed home advantage in the million pound match, a one-off shootout between the sides finishing fourth and fifth in the Qualifiers for the final place in Super League next year.
And if Wakefield beat either Hull KR, who they play a week after the East Yorkshire side’s Challenge Cup final appearance, or Widnes Vikings, they could retain their top-flight status without the need for any final game drama.
It is a healthy position for Wakefield to be in, considering when Smith took charge, in early June, they had lost 14 successive league games and recently been eliminated from the Challenge Cup by Leigh.
Speaking after the victory at Leigh, secured by Lee Smith’s drop goal 12 minutes from time and a controlled performance after that, Smith conceded that keeping Wakefield in Super League would be among his most notable feats.
“I think from a satisfaction point of view, it’ll probably be right up there,” said Smith. “It will be for everybody in our club, I think, if we can manage that.
“I don’t think it could get much lower than where it was during the course of that long run of losses.
“But the spirit was still there and the desire to do something about it.
“We saw that again [on Saturday]. It was probably not the best of performances skill-wise or even thinking-wise.
“We were all over the place in the first half, but second half, pretty strong, very solid and a lot smarter.”
Wakefield led 24-6 at half-time of the Cup tie, but collapsed after Danny Kirmond – and Leigh’s Liam Kay – were sin-binned for fighting.
The home side again tried to rough Wakefield up and were on the wrong end of a hefty penalty count.
But Smith – who declined to comment on his future at Wakefield, other than saying he is enjoying his current role – observed: “Our guys learned a heavy lesson, I believe, from the previous encounter in the Cup, where there was some fisticuffs and stuff went on after they led by a big margin in that game.
“This time when some scuffling and garbage went on, our guys stood up for themselves, but they didn’t get engaged in anything crazy.
“In the end that put us where we were comfortable one-point winners – is that possible?”
A Lee Smith try and the first of his two conversions gave Wakefield an early lead, but Leigh hit back through Fuifui Moimoi, Jonathan Pownall and a brilliant Kay effort, two of them converted by Martyn Ridyard, to lead 16-6.
Jacob Miller danced over just before the break and repeated the feat on the hour, before Michael Sio was sin-binned for an alleged crusher tackle.
Lee Smith kicked a one-pointer soon after that and Wakefield held on with few alarms.
“Some crazy stuff went on out there and we contributed to some of it,” coach Smith reflected.
“I was – and we all were – pretty disappointed with how things went in the first half, but I thought under pressure and certainly with 12 men, with a guy in the sin-bin, we did really well to maintain that slender lead and see it out. We have got ourselves in a good spot now, so we have got to build on it some more. We definitely need to improve on the way we played.”
Leigh Centurions: McNally, Pownall, Worthington, Armstrong, Kay, Ridyard, Brierley, Moimoi, Higham, Emmitt, Haggerty, Dixon, Acton. Substitutes: Beswick, Barlow, Spencer, Aspinwall.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: L Smith, Riley, Tupou, Arundel, Lyne, Miller, T Smith, Scruton, Sio, Anderson, Molloy, Ashurst, Simon. Substitutes: Lauitiiti, Washbrook, Godinet, Mullally.
Referee: J Child (Batley).