Smith's toughest test yet

Old foes: Mad Dog and Dell go head-to-head

When the satisfaction of back-to-back wins faded from Newcastle coach Brian Smith’s face his thoughts immediately turned to this week’s challenge against the in-form Dragons. His pulse started to rise and the blood started to flow a touch quicker.

By his own admission, Smith loves a coaching challenge. He relished getting his troops up for a big performance against a desperate Manly two weeks ago and was just as proud to see them back it up against a physical Warriors team.

But the fact is he loves nothing better than taking on a Wayne Bennett-coached side – it’s a rivalry that began in 1987 but really sparked up in the early 1990s when Bennett’s Brisbane defeated Smith’s St George in consecutive grand finals.

The pair have come head-to-head on 35 occasions, with master coach Bennett leading 21-14. Bennett has also won the past five straight, leaving Smith without a conquest since his 2005 Parramatta Eels beat Bennett’s Broncos.

“I think coaching challenges are part of the NRL scene and it’s [this weeks clash with Bennett] a bit of a trigger for me as Wayne has the enormous reputation which he has earned and deserves,” Smith tells NRL.com.

“Coaching rivalries happen but it varies from individual to individual and also time of year. It’s not the main focus but I’m aware it makes interesting copy for the media and we all have a responsibly to help promote the game. It can add a bit of spice to a game and you obviously always want to win.”

Former premiership-winning coach, now respected radio commentator Warren Ryan says there is an obvious desire in a man like Smith to prove his coaching skills against the best.

“I think it’s certainly possible the coaches have their own side-rivalries and the Smith-against-Bennett one definitely has something in it,” Ryan says.

“Speaking from experience there were times when you wanted to beat another coach for whatever reason, but the focus is obviously on your players despite the possibility of some extra motivation.

“Smithy has always been a control-type coach who thought his work was being tested against the work of the other fellow. He sees his game plans as being vital in the grand scheme of things and he is always coaching against the other guy, so why wouldn’t he want to prove himself against the best?”

Smith is acknowledged as a genius at drafting game plans that when executed correctly can upset even the hottest team in the competition. He managed to lift his Eels to seven away wins in Brisbane against Bennett – some of which remain highlights of his 510-game career. But with Smith now at the Knights and Bennett at the Dragons, can he find a way to crack the NRL’s best defence of 2009? (The steely St George Illawarra side is only leaking 10.6 points a game.)

“The atmosphere at Kogarah [WIN] Jubilee will be enormous but we have some big-game players like Gidley and Cross who relish in big occasions and also some younger guys who are looking for challenges and at the moment you’d have to say that the Dragons’ four wins in a row and the style they’ve won them… well, they present a real challenge for us,” Smith says.

“They are currently the form team so for us to do well against them is a huge challenge and the fact that Wayne is coaching them adds a bit extra. We will do our homework as we always do and come up with something we think will work for us.

“They went about their pre-season in a big way, they didn’t ease into it or hold back so they’re closer to eight games into developing a style of footy that they are exhibiting and they’re doing it pretty relentlessly and pretty consistently.

“They have an experienced footy team with some big boppers and they are playing the most physical football of anyone in the competition, up there and past Melbourne, so they have set their stall out early.

“As for us, I am pretty happy and I think the game against the Warriors showed where we are at. We did some good things and ultimately deserved to win the game but we don’t have that ruthless streak yet that we need when we get to a 24-12 lead.

“Instead of ensuring victory and winning comfortably we found ourselves in a bit of a cliffhanger at the end and for future progression that’s probably something we need to address – but one thing we did get was back-to-back wins.

“We haven’t been able to do that previously, particularly after big games against high-profile teams like a desperate Manly last week. Big-game wins like the effort against Manly are not worth a stamp if you fail to back it up the next week.

“To not get up again the weekend after would have been a major factor in the psychological development of this team.”

Smith knows his side is still young and down on experience when it comes to most NRL squads, but believes his men can continue their form into the showdown at Kogarah. The psychological development he speaks of would get an enormous boost with a third win on the trot against the new premiership favourites.

“We have a lot of young players in the team so it’s not fair to expect them to be able to always do that but it is fair to say that they have had enough time to show they are improving in that aspect of consistency. Another consistent effort is what we need this weekend and we will certainly be looking to do that.”