500 Games On, Tony Smith Pays Tribute To 'Pound For Pound' Great Rob Burrow

Smith will oversee the 500th Betfred Super League game of a glittering coaching career over Easter weekend
08:35, 15 Apr 2022

As coaching great Tony Smith approaches a remarkable career milestone, the Hull KR boss has paid tribute to Rob Burrow, the toughest player he has ever coached.

Smith will oversee the 500th Betfred Super League game of a glittering coaching career over Easter weekend, having experienced some heroic highs and lonely lows since arriving in the UK from Australia 21 years ago.

After flourishing at Huddersfield, the highs came at Leeds, where inspired by Burrow and the Rhinos’ iconic squad of stars, Smith led the club to Grand Final glory in both 2004 and 2007, successes that tempted his family to lay down permanent roots in the UK and become British citizens.  

It was at Headingley where he saw first-hand the unique fighting spirit of Burrow, a character and mindset that the rest of the world is now witnessing in his very public battle with the brutal Motor Neurone Disease.

 “Pound for pound the toughest player I have ever coached,” Smith told The Sportsman.

“Rob was a tough little thing and smart and had a whole heap of attributes. He was a good fella and still is.  

“My heart goes out to him as it does from all the rugby league community and he is doing his best to make things better for everyone’s community. 

"He is still very thoughtful and very tough. It was a privilege to coach him and watch him achieve so much both in life and sport”.

Smith’s own journey saw him pick-up an underachieving Leeds side and revitalise their fortunes. “Tony Smith is magic” used to ring around a South Stand that had experienced much promise but traditional falls at the final hurdles. 

“I’ve great memories of Leeds and the old South Stand,” he adds.

“It was a great place to be part of at the time. There have been positive cultural changes at each of the places I’ve coached.”

Rob Burrow
Rob Burrow

Smith brought the magic back, before leaving to take charge of the national team, a role that brought both huge pride but also his lowest moments in the professional game. 

England reached the semi-finals of the 2009 World Cup Down Under but Smith got hammered by a rugby league press pack that he had fallen out with on the trip. When he returned he almost went into hiding in his Huddersfield farmhouse for a period of deep reflection and soul-searching.  

“I felt pretty low after that and was very down about things,” he told me.

“I struggled a bit mentally when I got back. I was a little down and knew things had to change for me. 

“Failure is too strong a word for what happened at the World Cup but the aftermath was one of the toughest points of my career."

Those dark days of 12 years ago led Smith back into the club game with Warrington where he continued sprinkling his magic dust, bringing the Wolves a first Challenge Cup final win since the 70s in 2009, another the following year, and another two years later.

“All along my career I have had downtimes but what I do have is the determination and drive when things go wrong to put them right,” he said of a rebuilding of his coaching reputation. 

It is a steely determination that is still evident now at Hull KR, where he is turning Rovers from annual also-rans into genuine contenders, with a Betfred Challenge Cup semi-final date already in the diary.  

And the 55-year-old is enjoying coaching now as much as the day he first stepped off the plane from Australia.

“When I first came over I only thought I’d be here a couple of years and then go back and coach in Australia but that changed and we loved it here, we have raised our family here and become citizens,” he adds.

“It has been a real honour to be part of the British game and contribute to the development of the game over here. This is home and it always will be now. I’ve no desire to go back to Australia.  

“Coaching is the drive more than anything else. I enjoy having an influence on young people’s lives and my own as well. If I can help them improve then I get a whole lot of satisfaction out of that. I want to help young people achieve their dreams. When that day comes that I’m not helping them any more that is when I stop coaching.” 

Game 499 for Smith is a tasty Good Friday Hull derby against Hull FC, before bringing up the magic 500 with a trip to Toulouse on Easter Monday. 

Bien joué, Tony.

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