THE FORMER Castleford half-back Tony ‘Casper’ Smith admits he never fully realised the enormity of what it meant to play in a Rugby League World Cup final.
He featured against champions Australia at Wembley in 1995, losing out 16-8 in one of those typical encounters seen so many times versus the Kangaroos – plenty of endeavour and hope but, ultimately, just not quite good enough to prosper.
The England team are currently Down Under endeavouring to finally put that right, striving to reach the showpiece in Brisbane on December 2 and, at last, lift the famous trophy for the first time.
Granted, Great Britain have done so – although still not since 1972 – but England still await a maiden victory.
They have never come as close as they did 22 years ago when, having already beaten Australia at Wembley in the group stages, they could not quite repeat the feat.
Smith, a prolific stand-off for hometown Castleford, was 25 at the time and beat off competition from current Castleford head coach Daryl Powell for the prized No6 jersey in the competition’s final.
Back then, I didn’t realise the magnitude of it all. Then you look back and watch it on TV and see there was over 60,000 people there. Even though we lost, there are great memories there.Former Castleford Tigers and England star, Tony Smith
Powell had started there when England beat Australia 20-16 in the group match, alongside Shaun Edwards, the captain who would suffer a cut knee in that game and suffer an infection that prevented him playing again in the tournament.
Smith scored a try when partnering Bobbie Goulding in the 46-0 win over Fiji at Wigan and, although Powell got the nod when England beat South Africa by the same scoreline at Headingley, Smith came off the bench to score again.
He did enough, in coach Phil Larder’s eyes, to merit selection for the knockout stages.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Smith recalled: “Shaun Edwards went down ill if I remember correctly.
“I played in the semi-final against Wales at Old Trafford and then kept my spot for the final.
“It was massive for me. I’d been at Wembley three years previously playing with Cas’ against Wigan in the Challenge Cup final and thoughts of that day (a 28-12 loss) were still fresh in my mind.
“I remember, in 1995, the Super League war was going on so the ARL (Australian Rugby League) didn’t pick players who had signed for Super League.
“That caused a lot of issues but it was still a really good Aussie side.
“The game was really close, really fast and they just edged it really.
“I can’t remember too many of the details. It’s one of those games that seemed to go by in a blur.”
Looking back at some of the players on show for the Kangaroos that day, it just shows the depth of talent Australia boasted, especially given the likes of Ricky Stuart, Bradley Clyde and Laurie Daley were left at home as part of that escalating breakaway Super League war that divided the sport.
Smit said: “I was up against Brad Fittler, the Aussie captain, and they had Geoff Toovey at seven and a young Andrew Johns at hooker who ended up getting man-of-the-match.
“So, as much as they left some behind, it was still a quality side.
“I didn’t really think about what it was like to play in a World Cup final.
“When I look back it is just something you do and you just get on with it.
“It’s not until you retire and get into your 40s that you realise just how good that is … to play in a World Cup final for your country.
“Back then, I didn’t realise the magnitude of it all. Then you look back and watch it on TV and see there was over 60,000 people there.
“Even though we lost, there are great memories there.”
Smith scored 90 tries in 195 games for Castleford before signing with Wigan in 1997, joining many of his England team-mates from two years earlier, including Kris Radlinski, Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell and Mick Cassidy.
He won the inaugural Super League Grand Final with them against Leeds in 1998 and was in the Wigan side beaten by St Helens two years later.
Smith, who also earned five caps for Great Britain, finished his career off with Hull FC but Castleford was always his main love.
Indeed, the 47-year-old is now back there coaching the academy side of the club who, under Powell’s guidance, won the League Leaders’ Shield for the first time in their history this season.
Smith added: “Back in ‘95, it was brilliant to be representing Cas.
“I’m a Cas lad through and through and it’s great to be back there now passing on some of my knowledge to the young guys.
“Even though I later signed for Wigan I still lived in Cas and travelled over there for five years. Cas is in my roots.
“Wigan was a great time for me, too. I picked up so much there. Wigan were the first professional side. Earlier, they were full-time when most other sides had been part-time and they had really high standards.
“There was some world-class talent there and everyone knows about the history they had.”
Does he ever wind Powell up about beating him to that stand-off jersey for the 1995 World Cup final.
“I don’t wind him up about that as much, but I did used to mention when I was playing for Wigan and we beat his Leeds side in that first Grand Final in ‘98,” joked Smith.
“After what happened to Cas at Old Trafford the other week, though, I don’t tend to mention that now…”
In the 1995 final, Balmain full-back Tim Brasher and Illawarra winger Rod Wishart were Australia’s try-scorers, with Johns – listed at nine but generally playing at scrum-half – kicking four goals.
England’s solitary try came from St Helens’ world-class ex-Featherstone and Bradford Bulls centre Paul Newlove, Goulding adding two goals.
With Radlinski, Robinson, Gary Connolly and Martin Offiah in the three-quarters, England certainly boasted some real talent.
Up front they had the likes of Andy Platt, Karl Harrison, Farrell and – captain in Edwards’s absence – Denis Betts, the ex-Wigan second-row, who is now England’s assistant coach.
England fans hope their side will do things in reverse this year; having lost their opening game against Australia, can they reach the final and get that elusive win?
After following up with Saturday’s victory over Lebanon, they face France this week and Smith said: “They have to find some cohesion.
“A lot of those players had not played for a while before this tournament started, but all teams are in the same boat.
“It would be great to see them go on and get to the final but go one better than what we did in 1995. Hopefully, they will get there and win it.”