George Smith providing England the blueprint at No 7
So beaten are English brows, so gazed upon the navels, that this northern autumn of disappointment and introspection has led to existential questions about that most philosophically challenged of backrow roles, the openside flanker. What does it really mean to be a No 7? And in England, anyway, do they actually exist?
As luck would have it, a man with the appropriate answers arrived in the country at the start of this season. When Wasps signed Australian George Smith, they took on one of the greats of the 21st century. Have there been better No 7s since the game went professional? You may start with Richie McCaw, but then Smith is straight into the debate.
Just as a taster of his seen-it-all, done-it-all CV, when asked the old question about who were the best opensides he had faced in his career, Smith lobbed in the obvious one, McCaw, then David Pocock, very much the modern model, and then went back to the turn of the millennium with Josh Kronfeld and Corne Krige, the former Springboks captain.
With 111 international caps to his name, Smith’s career has spanned four countries and three continents.
Little wonder, then, that at Wasps they are trying to squeeze from him every drop of knowledge about the art of the No 7.
Indeed, they are trying so hard that it has become a joke.
This is James Haskell, his new teammate, on the subject of Smith and the apparent production line of outstanding No 7s in the southern hemisphere: “I’ve tried to soak up his knowledge. Why are they so good? I don’t know. I’ve looked up to George Smith my whole career. I’ve tried to pin him down four or five times to get some secrets out of him, but I turn my back and he’s gone off in his car.”
This is Smith in response, finding the situation rather amusing: “James and the others are complaining to me that I keep on leaving the session early and not teaching them anything.”
On a more serious note, he suggests that although he has not yet sat down his backrow teammates for the masterclass they clearly desire, they will be learning subliminally.
“Whenever there’s an opportunity to pass on any knowledge, body position, timing, whatever is related to the breakdown, I do, but I don’t think that watching and analysing clips can be the whole process,” he said.
“Players learn a lot more by watching a player and seeing the lines that they run and seeing what they are doing in certain situations.”
His case study was Phil Waugh, another of the Wallabies’ all-time great No 7s. Indeed, at the 2003 World Cup, the Smith and Waugh double act was the forerunner of the Pocock-Michael Hooper backrow combination.
Smith said of Waugh: “Every time I trained and played alongside him for the Wallabies, he made me a better player.”
In which case, the lessons must be sinking in at Wasps because, for all that he is 35-years-old and six years past his international career (though he did play one international against the Lions in 2013), Smith has made the brightest of starts to his latest reinvention, as an Aviva Premiership player.
Last weekend in the win against Gloucester, he was man of the match, described as “excellent” and “an inspiration” by Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby. Overnight the challenge moved up a gear with the start of European competition and a huge Wasps fixture away to Leinster.
Smith has played in this competition before, in its previous life as the Heineken Cup, when he was at Toulon. They were the first of his three French clubs (before joining Stade Francais and Lyons); given that he spent most of his career with the Brumbies but also did a highly paid stint for Suntory Sungoliath in Japan, he has a deep understanding of the global game.
And he cannot pinpoint a reason why No 7s in England are not being developed the way they are in the southern hemisphere. Yes, he says, conditions do affect the style of game generally — “With the rain and wet conditions, possession is really important, not forcing the pass. We have a game here trying to play expansive, but sometimes that doesn’t work” — but he does not see that as an influence specifically in the developing skills of an English openside flanker.
“I wouldn’t say that one country produces certain types of players, I’d say it comes down to the individual in harnessing their skills. When I was growing up, I had that natural ability to try and steal the ball and try and be quick to a breakdown. That was just ingrained in me from a young age. It wasn’t anyone telling me what I was going to be, it was instinctively what I turned out doing.”
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