IT IS fair to say ex-England winger Lee Smith never envisaged by the age of 31 he would be training two nights per week or be captain of Bradford Bulls.
He is, of course, a son of rivals Leeds Rhinos, part of their ‘golden generation’, winning three successive Grand Finals between 2007 and 2009 before an ill-conceived move to rugby union.
Smith, in fact, made his Rhinos debut in 2005 – the year Bradford were last crowned Super League champions.
Now, though, after years of financial strife, Bulls are preparing for life in League 1 and Smith is their captain having been handed the role this week by newly-appointed head coach John Kear.
After this season’s relegation from the Championship, the West Yorkshire club have had to switch to a “hybrid” status where the majority of their players are part-time with only a handful, including Smith, operating on full-professional terms.
They will face the likes of Hemel Stags, Coventry Bears and Newcastle Thunder in 2018, all a far cry from the days of conquering Leeds, Wigan and St Helens or World Club Challenge glories versus the likes of Newcastle Knights and Penrith Panthers.
However, as he told The Yorkshire Post, Smith is embracing the challenges ahead.
“It’s the first time I’ve been a captain,” admitted the player, who joined in February after being released by Leigh Centurions.
“First of all, it’s a massive privilege and honour to captain a club of this size. There’s a little bit of responsibility there to try and get us back up into the Championship, but it’s something I’m looking forward to.
“We have a lot of young kids who are very, very talented in that team and hopefully I can give them a little bit of experience having been around the block.
“Hopefully we can have a real good year and a fun year as well; I want it to be fun and enjoy ourselves with a smile on our faces.
“We’re in League 1 and no one really wants to be here; a club of this size shouldn’t be down here.
“But it is what it is and it’s our job now to get it back up to where it belongs.”
Veteran coach Kear quit his Super League job as Wakefield Trinity’s head of rugby to accept the challenge and Smith admitted: “Putting John in charge is a fantastic appointment.
“He knows the leagues very well, the Championship especially. He did a brilliant job at Batley and I can’t wait to get started with him. All I’ve heard is real good things about John. He’s a real good fella, which is the start of it all, and he gets his teams playing well. I was just sat here talking to him (before Wednesday’s press conference at Odsal) remembering how I once played as an Academy lad at Odsal with Leeds in 2003.
“I will never forget we got changed up in the top changing rooms and had to walk out down the steps when both first teams had just come out to warm up. It was one of the best atmospheres – aside from playing at Old Trafford in a Grand Final – I’ve ever experienced.
“There was about 26,000 inside here, which I think everyone in the sport – not just Leeds and Bradford fans – want to see back.
“We’re a long, long way from that, but it’s our job to try and get Bradford back in Super League in the next two, three, four years, however long it takes.”
Former Wakefield star Smith managed just 11 appearances last term after being dogged by a knee injury, but is hoping for a far better return in 2018.
He is unsure yet where Kear will deploy him, though, and said: “I’m fortunate enough that I can play in a few positions. We don’t know where Dane Chisholm is going to be – whether he’ll make the first game or not.
“Both our halves are injured as Joe Keyes came back from the World Cup with Ireland having done his medial ligament.
“So, when we have got out in training with the ball, I’ve been playing half for now.
“Whether or not I stay there I don’t know, but I’m easy. I’ll play wherever he needs me to play: half-back full-back, centre or even wing – although those days might be over
“It’s been the first time I’ve trained on a night for a long, long time. It’s different, but I am really enjoying it. The full-time lads have been coming in Monday mornings with whoever can from the part-time ones. We train Tuesday night, Thursday night and then Saturday morning.
“I think when the season starts that might change, but personally it’s been good.”
There is no escaping what the goal has to be, though – instant promotion. Morley-born Smith conceded: “We can’t shy away from that. It is a must, we need to get up this year.
“It is going to be difficult. There’s a few places to go where I’ve never been before, but ultimately it’s an exciting prospect.”