Although originally hailing from the English West Country, Trinity’s director of rugby, Tony Smeeth, has coached at Blackrock College and further afield, having worked in the United States with the American national set-up at various levels and at different times in his career, giving him a unique overview of the game (as well as a confusing blend of accents). Having been at Trinity since 1998, we thought it was about time that Trinity News sat down with Tony to talk process-driven rugby and how balance is the watchword for everything that goes on in and around the club.
First of all, how did you end up in Ireland?
I came to Ireland through Blackrock College. I was living and coaching in Seattle, and George Hook, who was doing coaching clinics there at the time, and Eddie O’Sullivan, who he was involved with, saw me coach and asked if I would ever think about coaching in Ireland. I came over, got the job [at Blackrock], and at that time [before 1995] Blackrock had about 5 or 6 Irish internationals, we were getting crowds of 5000, taking an executive train with 250 people down to Limerick. Then, the provinces started up, the club game got downgraded – not so much in standard, but as a spectacle. I applied for the job here in Trinity, and I got it.
You left Blackrock in 1998. Do you think the standard of the club game has gone down because of the structural changes?
Everyone’s fitter, but the standard has gone down because you don’t have the top players in Ireland playing there, but I remember when I came over, I thought it was pretty turgid stuff, whereas now, all the teams play. I think the actual style’s better. Obviously, it’s not as good, because you’ve got the top 10% gone, playing pro, but it’s still a good league.
Having coached in the United States, do you think there is a gap in level between rugby there and here in Ireland?
Rugby in America is kinda pushing shit up a hill, to be honest. But I loved coaching there. Americans are the best people to coach, the best trainers, great attitude. But it’s not innate. Rugby’s alongside Frisbee, it’s an alternative sport. If you’ve got a big, fast guy in America, he ain’t playing rugby, you’re playing other sports. I had 14 backs in my squad, 11 of them were foreign. For example, we had good Kiwi players over there, good Australians, good English guys, but they’re guys who haven’t made it in their own countries – you’re never gonna beat the All Blacks with rejects. If it goes professional, it will be different. If they had a New York team in the Pro-12, like the Italian teams, if they did that, they would close the gap very, very quickly.
Moving to the here and now, and despite a little bit of difficulty at the start of the season, DUFC has come back from that and had a bit of an upturn in form in recent weeks. How is it going overall for you this season?
Because of the French and English clubs wanting to change the [fixture] template, everything got shunted forward – but unfortunately shunted forward really late – and we were in the [1-week training] camp on the 17th August, and suddenly we had a game on the 13th [September], rather than the first week of October. And we knew we were going to struggle, we tried to get guys back in, training unofficially since the 9th August, and we also knew about half the squad were new. Going into an All-Ireland League with just three warm up games is not enough. Unfortunately, we struggled. It didn’t look good early on, to be honest.
So what went wrong and what changed to turn it around?
We just weren’t ready. Rugby is a process-driven game and we didn’t have our processes in. We struggled, losing games that we probably shouldn’t have lost. Saying that, we played a lot of the good teams early on, we were also training all over the place, and then the pitch was delayed… And it can’t be coincidence that we haven’t lost since the week we came back to College. It’s just a better buzz here, when we play here we tend to be pretty competitive.
Going forward, what other areas specifically need improving?
Experience is the big thing. You’ve got ten guys playing their first senior rugby, and it’s massively physical. Right now, we’re really beat up. The processes always need refining, in rugby there’s never a situation where you think, “Ah, we’ve got it down now.” Even the All Blacks are always refining. Accuracy is probably the one thing we’ve got to work on, we’re not as accurate as we should be, in everything we do.
What are you happy with?
The things you can’t coach – attitude. They’re dogs, they work hard, there’s an inner belief. You’re coming up against good players, all the time. In this league, fitness is not the issue, because they’re as fit as we are, they’ve got guys who are full-time pro. The edge that college teams generally have doesn’t “go” in this type of league.
How does the team find that balance between the importance of studying and playing?
We run a high-performance model. High-performance is 24/7, not just training Thursday night; it starts on Monday morning. We have two conditioning coaches, plus me. How does it relay with college? It gives you structure. If you’re not doing weights at 8 o’clock, what are you usually doing? Sleeping. You go to bed a bit earlier, don’t go out as much. They go out, don’t get me wrong, and I want them to do that, as long as they’re back in on Monday morning and they don’t do anything stupid. But the guys are focused. Players know that if they want to play for us, that’s the way it is.
So would you encourage your players to go out, have a good time, or would it be very strict? What kind of culture do you encourage?
The culture – we want them to enjoy college. I say to them, “You need to enjoy your wins.” You can’t coach team spirit. The things that Trinity teams always have, and that we’ve had over any other place, is that there’s a real feeling – they play for the college, they play for themselves. They’re great friends and the camaraderie’s fantastic. Other teams have that, but with us there’s a real bond. I’m going to ten-year reunions and they all talk about the mornings [gym sessions] and how it made them as a person, gave them discipline, but they also talk about the great times. You have to have a balance.
What would your own personal style of coaching, or man-management, be?
It’s process-driven. It’s not faceless, but we’re not big on the “ra-ra”s before the game, it’s all systematic. It’s not about “Let’s go smash somebody!” We talk about physicality – it doesn’t matter how you play in rugby, you have to be physical, you can’t play rugby without being physical – but you’ve got to forward. You can throw it over your head, do what you want, as long as you’re going forward. Now, the Irish teams are very controlled – we keep coming back to “process-driven”, but all the top coaches are that way. I try to be process-driven, but it’s not always that way; sometimes, emotionally, you get involved. And I am emotional during a game, probably a bit of a head case. And I like, actually, to be up at the back of the stand – if there’s a big stand, it just removes me so I can have my little tantrums. Because you’re so involved, and at the end of the day, my week goes on how Saturday went. If we win, I have a great week. If we lose on Saturday – shite.
What are your goals for the rest of the season?
We’re at the mid-way point now. I think we could go close with the U20’s at All-Ireland level. With the Seniors, a lot will depend on how healthy we stay. We really need to win our next couple of games to close the gap on the top teams. I like saying, “I just want to take care of Saturday.” It has to be one game at a time, because if you get carried away we can be awful. Win the next game.
Photo: Kevin O’Rourke