Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Alas Smith And Groans

The worst kept secret in rugby league since Nigel Wood finally admitted to hoovering up all the pork pies at the RFL's end of season buffet is out. Matty Smith's switch back to St Helens was confirmed today. Smith missed out on selection for the England squad yesterday but has nevertheless managed, even at the age of 29, to secure a three-year deal at Saints beginning in 2017. The same Saints who have released Smith twice before having deemed him not good enough.

It's a change of heart which, if I'm quite frank about it, has left me abandoning all hope that our mind-fuckingly awful style of play will improve. For all that he has been a part of a Wigan side that has reached the last four Grand Finals (winning two), Smith is the definition of an average scrum half and will only decline from here on in as his career reaches its final stages. To offer him four years at his age is an utterly unfathomable piece of business which smacks loudly of desperation. Remember, it isn't that long ago that a markedly more ambitious version of Saints let Sean Long go to Hull FC because they didn't want to offer a long contract to a player entering his thirties. If one of the greatest players in our history isn't worth keeping on at that time of life, how have we reached the point at which the demonstrably inferior Smith can secure a lucrative deal into his dotage?

Smith lacks pace, has an erratic kicking game, a predictable passing range and let's not even get started on his goal-kicking. I nearly got hit on the head by one of his conversion attempts at Old Trafford at the weekend and I was watching the game in a pub in town. He's exactly the kind of steady-Eddie non-entity of a half which modern coaches (particularly Keiron Cunningham) seem to covet. They allow them to foist more of their no-frills, bore-the-arse-off-everyone tactics upon us, the faithful sheep paying their fucking wages. Smith's a significant downgrade on the infinitely more talented Luke Walsh, though you'd probably struggle to see that too clearly in a team whose half is only ever required to execute another turgid drop-off to an almost stationary forward just straining at the leash for the opportunity to get on his knees and elbows as quickly as possible. No question about it, Saints have acquired the scrum-half who most snugly fits their new anti-rugby philosophy. Keiron has got his structure back with Matty on board.

The spin doctors at the club will no doubt remind us that we have just signed the starting scrum-half from the recently crowned champions who also happen to be our fiercest rivals. What a coup. Yet that doesn't whiff quite right. Smith had two years remaining on his contract at the DW Stadium. Why would they want to let him go? For free? To their most bitter rivals? Are we to believe that the Warriors have released Smith out of the goodness of their hearts? That the unsettlingly close relationship between Keiron and Prince Fathead from over the lump has yielded this friendly gesture? I suppose they might have had some kind of Trading Places-style bet, distancing themselves from the emotions of the people affected by their hilarious japery in a bid to prove whether any old half will do, but I highly doubt it. More likely, Mr Wane has seen Keiron coming from some distance away and, knowing he has Thomas Leuleuai and George Williams in place for next year (and Sam Tomkins and Ryan Hampshire also able in the halves) has sold him a fading dud. I say sold. He gave him away because he's nice like that is Shaun, but you knew what I meant.

Damaging their bid to convince us of Smith's greatness is Saints' secrecy and downright deceipt over the whole debacle. Consider this gem from Keiron back in August;

"Matty is a good player but isn't on the radar. It was a bit of a shock when we saw what was in the press. They have got to be the right calibre of player and the right fit for the squad. We're not looking for short-term fixes."

Now it is just about plausible that a coach can change his mind about a player. What isn't of interest in August may well appeal in October, particularly if by that time Benji Marshall has run away laughing and Kevin Brown has decided that the wheelbarrow of cash you've had delivered isn't quite big enough. But Smith's return has been common knowledge to all but the 'are Saints playing today?' brigade on Facebook since around April. Smith has been very much 'on the radar' all along and it is unnerving that our legendary leader would choose to tell us anything different. It's one thing trying to keep your business quiet and under wraps so as not to jeopardise the outcome, but quite another to explicitly state that the player you've been eyeing up for months isn't an option for you. I appreciate that he will have been asked the question but I'd much rather Keiron just state that he doesn't talk about other clubs' players when they're under contract? Smith himself has also issued several denials and is complicit in all of these sorry attempts to mislead people who have always known better. it's insulting.

You may be wondering where the large grey trunked mammal is in the room of this column so we'll dodge the issue no longer. The badge kissing. Smith has been on the dark side for four years now, during which time he at some point saw fit to celebrate scoring against Saints by kissing the Wigan crest on his filthy, pie-stained shirt. To some fans this is an unforgivable act, worthy by itself of banishment from all things Saints-related for all eternity. Think of it as running away from home, making a decent life for yourself and then coming round to your mum's house to shit on her carpet. My own view is that it is just the kind of classless posturing we can expect from modern day sports stars and probably doesn't exclude Smith from being able to give his best for Saints when he returns. Such as his best will be. Yet I can fully understand the anger of those who fork out their hard earned home and away only to have upstart players shitting on their metaphorical carpet just to make some kind of petty point to their former employer. As if Saints were wrong to release Smith when they had Long at half, or even when the incumbent was a young, pre-diva Kyle Eastmond. There are some who wouldn't welcome Smith back even if he were something more than bang average.

Yet they and we are stuck with him until the end of 2019 at least. In welcoming Smith back to the club Keiron quite openly suggested that the new (old?) man will form a long term halfback partnership with Theo Fages. All of which would seem to end hopes of a really exciting signing in the halves, and leaves us to hope that with the acquisition of Ryan Morgan from the Anglophobic Melbourne Storm Smith will at least have a more balanced attack to try to supply. Tonmy Makinson's return from injury should help too in that regard. It might work out, it might not. The structure and standard of Super League is such now that it is perfectly possible to plod along, grinding it out in your structure with your carpet-soiling half pulling your very mosdest strings and end up with the trophy in your hands come October. Wigan have just proved it. Six sides scored more tries than they did in Super League in 2016 and 31 (31!!!!!) players had more assists than Smith. Including Walsh (only Luke Gale had more), Jon Wilkin and Jordan Turner. And Fages. And fucking Dan Sarginson!

So yes, it might work out. It's just not likely to be that interesting finding out.

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