In the last week of his professional career in Australia, George Smith has revealed he was close to making a comeback to Test rugby for the Wallabies at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Smith retired from Wallabies duty after 110 caps at the end of 2009, and though still an active player, has almost spent as long out of the international arena as he spent in it.
The legendary flanker made a brief comeback in 2013 against the British and Irish Lions but, remarkably, if Smith had continued on playing every Test in the years since 2009, he'd be up to a staggering 225 Tests by now.
Smith sat down with RUGBY.com.au to talk about why he gave up Test rugby, the 2011 World Cup, his coaching future and why Stephen Larkham is a natural fit to replace Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach. Smith also nominates his toughest ever opponent.
Q: Did you ever have any regrets about calling time on your Wallaby career when you did?
George Smith: I don’t think I have any regrets with the decision. When I did make that decision at the time, I was very much done with international rugby. I had played 10 years of back-to-back-to-back rugby and with minimal rest throughout the time. I was spent - I was really spent by that time - and I needed a new challenge. I had spent numerous years at the Brumbies and with the Wallabies and I just wanted to spend more time with the family. I was really thankful that Rugby Australia allowed me to cut that contract short. I had two years left on that contract and it was really lucrative at the time, as well. Money wasn’t a factor when I made the decision and when I did move to my France it solidified my decision. I was enjoying my rugby again, I was in a different environment.
Q: What drove you to come back into the Wallabies fold in 2013?
GS: The pull of playing in a British and Irish Lions Test match was too great but for me to continue with the Wallabies season on and on again with the Bledisloe, Tri Nations and whatnot - that did not interest me. Being within the campaign - I had fond memories of it from 2001 - it pulled me back. But I have really distanced myself from that post 2013. There was an opportunity for me to come back and play in the 2011 World Cup squad but other than that, there hasn’t been a huge pull for me to come back and play international rugby.
Q: How close did you get to playing at the 2011 World Cup?
GS: I was definitely close. I had a conversation with John O’Neill at the time, Robbie Deans and also Eddie Jones - who was my Suntory coach - but ultimately the decision to not come back and play and to was fine with me.
Q: When did you realise in your final Wallabies season that it was no longer for you?
GS: Being overseas and spending time with my family in the 2010-11 season was a big moment for me and it showed me what overseas can offer people at a time in their career. At that stage I had played 100 Test matches so at that time there was no really big, unfinished business for me.
Q: You obviously were quite unique in the skill set you possessed as a forward, and successful from a young age. Did rugby league ever try to poach you?
GS: When I first got a contract with the Brumbies there was interest but there were no contracts placed in front of me. Although I love the game of rugby league and my brothers played for the Sydney Roosters, I saw benefit and more enjoyment for me in going overseas and playing the game of rugby and my strengths were in this game. The pros (in rugby) far outweighed rugby league for me, as a player. It’s not for everyone but I found more benefit in playing rugby union. Manly and Wests Tigers were the clubs. It wasn’t a massive interest - it was an enquiry but not a massive interest. It was more that I got an offer from Eddie and Ewen McKenzie at the time and to be playing alongside the greats of Australian rugby and get that tutelage throughout my career - it far outweighed me going to play rugby league.
Q: What sort of coaching ambitions do you harbour?
GS: I don’t have an interest, right now, to have a full time position as a coach. Is there interest for me to assist teams or to assist players that I have played alongside and so on? Yeah, there is. I think my strengths are that I’m still playing the game and I’m still aware of how breakdowns and situations play out in the current format. That’s always going to be appealing for players that play the game because I’m current and doing what I’m trying to do at this stage of my career. It’s something that I will take up but do I envisage when I come back in six months that I’ll go straight into a coaching job? No, that’s not part of the plan.
Q: What does the future hold for you after your contract finishes with Bristol?
GS: The immediate plan is to expand on this business. It engages with the community really well and being here in the past three months it shows how engaged you have to be with the community and also, the response the community has given us here at North Lakes. I also have an interest in consulting with rugby but that's the immediate plan at the moment.
Q: Who do you think the best players you've played with are?
GS: I always thought that Stephen Larkham was by far one of the best guys I played with. He just understands the game and executes his involvements very well every single time he was out there. I had the benefit of watching him train and seeing how he did things as well as what he did on the weekend and that was a privilege. Just to see how he worked, how he threw passes and how he went about things when he was training. In the latter part of my career I had the opportunity to play with Fourie Du Preez who I thought was fantastic. His game awareness, his ability to find a space on the field where other players may not be able to see - his anticipation of things was world class. Those two guys are probably in the top 10 players that have ever played the game and I was fortunate enough to play alongside these guys. I said yesterday that I was very lucky to be contracted to the Brumbies in an era where in some cases we were the best province in the world. To get the masterclass from those guys in the early part of my career to mould me as a player - I was pretty lucky, I guess.
Q: Do you think Larkham is the man to lead the Wallabies when Michael Cheika steps down?
GS: I don't want to make any grand statements out there but I think he is a natural fit. He has had experience with a Super Rugby team in the Brumbies and whether he chooses to put his hand up is up to him but I think he is a fantastic coach.
Q: You mentioned some guys you loved playing with but who did you relish playing against - who was your toughest opponent?
GS: I found it difficult playing guys that were very calm and collected under pressure. I enjoyed playing against Dan Carter because he was just always methodical and I guess robotic in some sense. He always did the same thing over and over and wasn't fazed by pressure on him. I always tried to put pressure on him but in most cases he was very calm and collected. Just putting pressure on him with tackles and all that sort of thing - he was always very composed.