Newly-appointed Leeds head coach Rohan Smith has long held ambitions to be a head coach and will now get his opportunity at Betfred Super League level after being named as Richard Agar’s permanent successor
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 27/04/22 12:11am
Rohan Smith realised at a relatively younger age than most of contemporaries that coaching was where his future lay, although the signs were perhaps always there for the new Leeds Rhinos chief.
Being around rugby league his whole life as the son of – among other clubs – former Hull FC, Bradford Bulls and Wakefield Trinity head coach Brian Smith and nephew of one of his predecessors in the top job at Leeds and now rival Betfred Super League head coach Tony Smith meant he was perhaps pre-ordained to be involved in the sport anyway.
But whereas others in their teens dreamt of lifting trophies or representing their country as players, the younger Smith was already targeting becoming a head coach, including never being afraid to tell his uncle where he was going wrong during the current Hull Kingston Rovers boss’ playing days back in Australia as half-back for St George Dragons.
“I was surrounded by coaching and in the dressing room from a young age and listening to coaches speak and having chats in the car,” Smith said.
“I remember driving home maybe as a 10 or 11-year-old when I was a ball-boy at St George telling Uncle Tony how he should have played in the game thinking I was an expert.
“When I was playing with my mates, I loved playing footy, but I was always trying to help them to play better footy and didn’t really have that selfish gene to think I needed to knuckle down and do it myself.
“I was 18 when I started teaching swimming at university to make some money, and I was teaching four to six-year-olds swimming eight or 10 metres, and that was probably when I really knew helping people to learn skills was something I was really passionate about.”
Over the past two decades, Smith has amassed an impressive coaching CV both on these shores and in Australia, working with the likes of compatriot Tony Rea at London Broncos, plus former treble-winning St Helens boss Daniel Anderson and current Sydney Roosters head Trent Robinson.
His own head coaching experience has seen him take charge of the Tonga national team and follow in the footsteps of his father by leading Bradford in the Championship in 2016 – a spell which was brought to an abrupt end when the financially-stricken club went into liquidation.
In the five years since, Smith has been back in his homeland leading Norths Devils in the Queensland Cup, where he estimates 50 percent or more of players in the competition have been in NRL systems, and has now been offered the chance to follow in another family member’s footsteps after being named as the man to succeed Richard Agar at the Rhinos on a permanent basis.
Indeed, the only thing missing from the 40-year-old’s CV which many of his contemporaries and his staff at Leeds have is much of a playing background, with his own experiences on the field being limited to playing for community club Stanningley when Brian was coaching Bradford and low-level rugby with his friends back home.
However, as the likes of Kristian Woolf at St Helens and Matt Peet at Wigan Warriors are showing in Super League, a lack of professional playing experience is no barrier to being a successful coach and Smith is not worried about that either.
“You can only live the life you’ve led,” Smith said. “I’ve never been a high-level player, so I’ve never had to transition out of that into being a coach.
“I’d say most players who come out of high-level sport take a period of time to adjust, decompress, shift their mentality towards coaching, whereas I’ve never had to adjust.
“I played park footy with my mates in Wollongong and that was enjoyable, but I’ve always been a coach in some capacity and gradually learnt my trade, taken risks and moved around the world and taken opportunities at different clubs to build my bank of experiences.
“I love reading, I love studying other sports, so I guess I’m coming at a different angle to most coaches which is maybe an advantage at a times.”
As a student of other sports, he will undoubtedly be familiar with the retort given by European Cup-winning former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi who when questioned on his own lack of playing experience would reply: “I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first.”
Of course, it will be no easy task to quickly whip the current Leeds side into shape to be competing at the top end of Super League again in a season which has seen them bouncing around near the foot of the table.
A 25-14 win at home to bottom side Toulouse Olympique last Friday has provided a lift to the Rhinos though and when Smith does arrived at Headingley once the necessary paperwork has been cleared he is confident he can make a positive impact.
“What I do know is can influence people on their behaviour and how they play the game,” Smith said. “I feel I can improve the individual whether they’re young, old or anywhere in between.
“I’ve got an appetite towards improvement myself and that’s quite infectious to anyone I work with. I feel there can be a fresh coat of paint with how the game is played, but also continuing to build on what has happened in recent times.
“The team seems very competitive, having a good crack, so I really look forward to building those relationships, getting to know people and asking more questions, and finding out what each individual and the group as a whole needs from me rather than saying ‘this is how it’s going to be’.
“I feel I’m very adaptive to what’s needed and certainly coming in mid-season requires that ability to adapt.”