In January 2006 I spoke to Leeds’s Lee Smith for Thirteen’s Young Guns series.
Firstly Lee, at what age did you begin playing rugby league?
As a nine-year-old. Firstly, I was at Churwell and then I ended up at Drighlington, which are amateur clubs in Leeds.
What position did you play back then?
I was a scrum-half with Scott Murrell at stand-off and John Gallagher, who’s now at Batley, at loose forward.
Do you think it’s detrimental to young players to play out of position at a young age, when they’re often forced into a central role for the good of the team?
Possibly. I suppose I was put there because I was more involved but it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I developed into the player I was going to be and the coaches thought I’d make a decent winger or fullback so I worked on my speed and the other qualities I’d need for those positions.
Did you always have ambitions of playing professionally?
Not really to be honest. It wasn’t until I was about 15 or 16 that I realised that signing for a club was a possibility. I didn’t sign for Leeds to start with but I ended up with a trial eventually and it went from there.
What age group was that?
That was the Under-17s Foundation side.
In 2003 you scored seven tries in an Academy match, an incredible achievement at any level. You must have gained great confidence from that?
Yeah, that was good. That year was about cementing my place in the under-18′s team and we went on to win the championship
Later in 2003 you played on the wing for England Under-17s against the Australian Institute of Sport.
Yeah, we won that series 2-0 and it was great to represent England, but I didn’t play too well in the first game and wasn’t chosen for the second. In fact, it was pretty much a new team that was picked. It was disappointing, but plenty of guys got a chance to play against against the Aussies.
Your great form at fullback for the Rhinos early in 2004 led to your selection for Yorkshire in the Academy Origin series.
2004 was a great year. I expected to be in the 18s again but ended up in the under 21s. The Origin series was good to play in and then back to the Leeds side, the only game we lost during the regular season was when nine of us were Down Under with the England side, but then we lost in the Grand Final to the Bulls.
It must have been a great thrill to be selected on the England Academy tour to New Zealand and Australia?
Absolutely. It’s the highlight of my career to date without any doubt.
You scored a try on your 18th birthday in the win against the Kiwis and were awarded the man of the match.
Yes, the series against the Kiwis was tough. We were staying in a really rough area of New Zealand and we had to slum it out for three weeks. Times were hard there and we didn’t get to do much apart from training and playing. But the game you mention was great especially as it was my birthday and I got the man of the match award.
What did you think of the Kiwis?
They had some massive players. Manu Vatuvei, from the Tri-Nations, was playing. He was a huge unit, absolutely massive. There was also [Iosia] Soliolo from Sydney Roosters who captained them and plenty of other great players.
Moving on to Australia, how did it feel to be part of the first ever England team to beat the Aussies on their soil and when did the magnitude of the victory sink in?
The Australian public really talk their Schoolboy side up and how good their record is etc but we knew we had nothing to lose. We started really well and got two early tries. They came back into it but we finished the stronger.
Steve Roach was on the radio the morning of the game predicting a 60 point win for the Aussies…
Really? Well, we’d seen a tape of them beforehand and we didn’t think they were that special. We thought if we stuck to what we were good at then we’d have a good chance. We really wore down their hooker early on and he was taken off. Then the same thing happened to his replacement! That was the area we targetted and it worked.
We’ve done well at this level for a while now. It seemed to start in 2002 when we beat them 2-0 in England.
When we were in camp with England, we watched the tape of those games all the time. Seeing them winning and witnessing what it meant to the players helped us prepare and realise what was ahead of us. Recent results show that we’re catching them up now.
Your performance in that game brought rave reviews from many keen judges in Australia and I spoke to talent scouts and managers who were very impressed.
I didn’t have any idea that I was being watched in particular but David Waite had a word with me and told me that that was the case which was pretty flattering I suppose. But I wasn’t interested at that time in Australian clubs. All I want to do is play for my home town club. Playing for Leeds is my ambition at the moment. If something from Australia came up in the future then I’d think about it then. I suppose it’s something I’d want to do one day, rather than finish my career and regret not doing something like that.
Back to your Leeds career, what do you remember of your debut?
It was against Wakefield last season at home and we were hammered. Tony said to me he wasn’t going to put me on at first because he didn’t want my debut to be like that but, in the end, he threw me out there in the deep end. I thought I did OK and put a few carries in and Tony said he was impressed.
What was the highlight of 2005 for you? You scored a fantastic try against Wigan.
Yes, that was a real highlight. I was down to play at centre that night but Richie Mathers got off the bus and didn’t feel well. So I moved to fullback. To be honest, I enjoyed just being thrown in there but we lost by two points and it was in the middle of a poor spell for the club either side of the Challenge Cup Final.
What are your goals for the rest of 2006 now that you have had a taste of Super League?
I’ll take each week as it comes but I want that spot on the wing and to play well if I get the chance.
There’s rumours of Richie going to the Gold Coast for 2007. That would open up the full back spot nicely for you.
Well I hadn’t heard that until just recently when someone told me that it had been rumoured in the paper. People talk about some sort of rivalry but I hope he doesn’t go. He’s a Leeds lad and you want Leeds lads to play for you. He’s a brilliant, brilliant kid and as much as I like playing fullback I’d be happy for him to stay and for us to work well together.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
As a kid coming through then I’d say Stuart Wilkinson, but now it’d have to be Tony Smith who’s worked on my discipline, got me training hard and got me wanting to train. I want to get better and better.
So was discipline a bit of a weakness?
No, not really. There were just a few things that needed ironing out I suppose. Tony’s put a lot of faith into me and made me realise I can really make a living out of this game and what I can achieve. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.
Do you know much about his career? He played for Workington in Super League in 1996.
Yes, he said and he said it was a bit of a tough time up there.
How are preparations for the new season?
It’s the best pre-season I’ve ever had. We’ve got a new conditioner in and we’re raring to go. Last season we fell short in both competitions so we’re spurred on by that and can’t wait to get going. Shane Millard, Mark O’Neill and Jamie Peacock will bring a lot of experience.
Has the Danny Ward situation had an effect?
No, it hasn’t.
What about the Academy now at Leeds? Who are the next set of lads who’ll be taking Super League by storm? We’ve chosen Ash Gibson as the ‘One to Watch’ from Leeds in 2006.
Yes, Gibbo and Danny Willians are really good players. I don’t know if you know much about Danny but he’s got plenty of ability and I reckon there could be a spot for Ash soon in the first team.
What’s changed with the partnership with Leeds Metropolitan University?
The main thing is the new stand. Also, a lot of the Leeds lads go to uni there like Kev, Disko and Rob. It’s giving lads the chance to have something after their rugby career.
So is that what the club offers to young players? Is it part of the package?
Well it wasn’t for me because it wasn’t in place when I joined but, yes, the younger players are encouraged to go to college so they’re not training in the morning and then just dossing about afterwards. The college is part of the contract for them.