Twelve years ago George Smith was gearing up for the Wallabies’ crunch third Test with Graham Henry’s Lions outfit in Sydney’s magnificent Olympic Stadium.
Smith was a revelation during that 2001 tour; a force of nature with an unrelenting work-rate sporting his signature dreadlocks, he was integral in helping Eddie Jones’ side claim the hard-fought series.
The ACT Brumbies flanker would go on to accumulate 110 caps for his country and become one of the most decorated Australian forwards of all time.
When a young openside by the name of David Pocock emerged on the international scene during the 2009 season, Smith decided to hang up his boots and he announced his international retirement at the beginning of the following year.
He then sought pastures new and enjoyed stints abroad with Toulon and Stade Francais in France, not to mention a two-year spell in Japan playing for the Suntory Sungoliaths.
In a strange twist of fate, Pocock suffered a season-ending knee injury in March; Brumbies coach Jake White sent for Smith, who was still enjoying rugby life in the Far East.
Smith arrived on a three-month loan and started to steal headlines during this year’s Super Rugby tournament. Having recently recovered from a knee injury suffered in May, the 32-year-old has now been parachuted into the starting line-up for Saturday’s clash against the Lions.
Robbie Deans has banked on Smith’s end-game experience to guide his young troops to glory.
Warren Gatland has done the opposite and decided to drop his most experienced campaigner and Smith was full of empathy for Brian O’Driscoll.
The duo were set to face off against each other in a fitting 2001 rematch but, alas, that eagerly anticipated bout will never occur.
“We all want that fairytale ending,” said Smith on the Irish centre’s banishment.
“I have enormous respect for Brian. He’s done a lot for European rugby. He’s had success in rugby that many players haven’t. He’s a person that a lot of players hold in reverence.”
Smith has played very little rugby since picking up his injury two months ago. Deans, however, seems happy to risk him despite the sublime form of Michael Hooper and Liam Gill, who made the match-winning turnover in Melbourne last time out.
“I know I’m being selected on merit,” said Smith on his inclusion.
“Although there’s an element of trust there, I think there may be an element of my presence going around that group and having a calming influence on the group.
“I’m not an ‘out there’ sort of person, I’m a very calm person when I’m around the group and I guess that’s what they get from me.”
Smith is the only player in both match-day squads to experience a final-Test Lions decider and is hoping that high-pressure familiarity will stand him in good stead come kick-off time. I don’t think it will be unnerving,” Smith offered.
“It will definitely be an adrenaline-pumping big game experience, something that I haven’t experienced for a long time.
“I don’t know if it will affect me mentally because I’ve played many games that have been do or die occasions, so hopefully it won’t, I don’t think it will be an issue.
“If you’re embracing that emotion that comes off every Australian and Lions supporter that’s out there… and sort of take it in and use it to your advantage.
“The finals I’ve played this year for the Japanese Suntory team have been fantastic, there’s some really good support there, but this will be on a totally different level.”
Smith has hinted that this may very well be his final game for the Wallabies, but his coach was adamant that he should consider playing on through this season and beyond.
“I’ve encouraged him never to retire,” joked Deans. “I did put my question to him at training today, and his response was not dissimilar but I didn’t take any heed of it, I dismissed it.
“He’s perfectly capable of playing until the 2015 World Cup; how old is Brad Thorn?”
Having been the wunderkind of the 2001 campaign, Smith now finds himself as the elder statesmen of the current playing group and the Manly-born back-rower has been hugely encouraged from what he has seen of his new team-mates.
“Yeah, look I’ve only been here a short time with the squad but there’s a good feeling when you see the guys interacting well with each other and laughing and being comfortable in their company,” he said on the mood of the camp.
“That’s where I get my indication of how the group’s going; if you see little cliques going here and there, then there may be a worry there, but I see everyone in each other’s pockets.”
All positive vibes from the Wallabies camp it seems.
There will be no fairytale ending for O’Driscoll, but Smith may yet have his Sydney swansong.
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