Interview: Tony Smith

Tony Smith
Tony Smith
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Any signs – or, perhaps, hope – that Warrington Wolves will suffer some sort of lingering hangover from last season’s play-off heartache have already been quickly extinguished.

Indeed, after the opening five rounds, as they sit at the top of Super League once more as the only undefeated side, it is almost as if their nadir never happened.

The response to losing that dramatic qualifying semi-final against Leeds Rhinos, denying the minor premiers their expected first Grand Final appearance at Old Trafford, has been emphatic.

For the majority of last season, prolific Warrington were the competition’s finest side. As they face Leeds tonight for the first time since that crucial 26-24 loss, the signs are they aim to repeat such dominance only with one telling difference at the end.

When Tony Smith took charge of the under-performing Cheshire club in 2009, he was charged with turning their vast potential, and owner Simon Moran’s similar investment, into silverware.

He has achieved plenty so far with back-to-back Challenge Cups in 2009 and 2010, while last season saw them lift the League Leaders’ Shield as they finished top for the first time since 1973.

But repeating the Grand Final success he earned with Leeds is the Australian’s prime concern, even if he will not say that directly ahead of this evening’s latest return to Headingley Carnegie.

“We’re aiming for consistency which I don’t think is something Warrington have been known for in the past,” Smith told the Yorkshire Post.

“They’ve always been known as a pretty good attacking team but we were pretty consistent last year in defence, too, as well as in our attack.

“That was our ambition to become as consistent as possible and, hopefully, that will continue as, if we do, it gives us a shot at the title.

“But a lot of things have to go well and it can come down to one performance – as we saw last year – while a lot of other stuff needs to fall into place, such as injuries, to win a championship.”

Despite their impressive start, during which Warrington’s only dropped points were from an opening day draw at Hull FC, Smith is ominously expecting more from his squad.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve hit our straps as, like all clubs, we’ve gone into the season a little underdone in terms of preparation,” he says.

“Our only friendly was against South Sydney Rabbitohs.

“We’re still ironing out a few things but of the games played we’ve done okay without being sensational.

“Hopefully, when the weather starts improving, I think we, like many, can start to play summer rugby and it’ll suit us.”

There is certainly a vibrancy to Warrington’s enterprising play which lights up their contests, something Leeds fans will recognise from Smith’s four-year tenure in West Yorkshire.

But tonight’s opponents, who obviously went on to win the Grand Final against St Helens after hounding out the Wolves, are in excellent nick themselves.

Eager to develop the same consistency as Warrington, who remarkably have lost just one regular round of Super League since last April, the Rhinos are keen to prove again this evening that they are worthy champions.

“Leeds are like they always are – a very dangerous team,” said Smith, who in 2004 led them to their first title in 32 years.

“If they perform well, which they usually do, then they have dangers across the park with some terrific strike players.

“They can hurt you if you don’t perform.”

There are similarities between the two big-spending clubs who were both guilty of long-term failure until Smith delivered his alchemy.

But he maintains: “It’s unfair to compare the two. Both have different backgrounds and cultures within their group.

“The cities themselves are different in size; Leeds is massive and also has a football club while Warrington, while not being as big, have all the city behind their rugby league team.

“As a coach, I’ve had to adapt to different places where I’ve been and it’s the same now but you can’t really compare the two.”

Saturday’s tricky 23-10 win at Bradford was Smith’s 100th game in charge of Warrington.

He admits being surprised when told of that milestone as it seems like only yesterday he was charging the Rhinos forwards and then instilling his brand on both Great Britain and England.

His decision to stand down from the international job after the 2009 Four Nations to concentrate solely on Warrington is not one he regrets.

Smith says: “It was the right thing for me. I enjoyed my time as an international coach – it was a great honour – but, for me personally, I needed the day-to-day coaching and couldn’t do that in a full-time position there.

“If it had been alongside a club role, I would have loved it. I enjoyed working with the elite players but I’m really satisfied working at club level.”

Successor Steve McNamara named nine Warrington players in his latest England squads this week, but overlooked in-form centre Ryan Atkins.

Was Smith surprised by that omission?

“Ryan’s been good so far this season and had a good one last year,” he said. “He’s progressing and is a great example of what we’re talking about. Ryan’s happy with what he’s doing and we’re happy, too, but he’ll get better.

“Steve, to a large degree, has kept faith with a lot of players he had at the back end of last year and that’s fair enough.

“The challenge for Ryan is to continue to improve. If he does, he’ll be there.”

Two centres who did make the cut are dynamic Rhinos pair Zak Hardaker and Kallum Watkins which makes for an intriguing match-up this evening.

Smith says: “They’re good players. We’ve got a lot of very good British outside backs around when, in recent years, there has been a bit of a void.

“It’s changing, though, and some of the young talent is really exciting.”