George Smith returning to the Brumbies has been one of the great talking points of the Super Rugby season and turned out to be incredibly fortuitous for the Brumbies in light of David Pocock’s injury.
But how are the Brumbies using Smith’s talents come game-time?
During the loss to the Stormers, Smith was a very prominent figure for the Brumbies, but sometimes I didn’t think it was in the best ways, and there was a ripple effect I noticed as well.
What is apparent in Smith’s involvement is the Brumbies are keen to get him involved as often as possible.
Smith was running the ball, getting in rucks, playing half-back at the ruck and sometimes lineouts, being used as first receiver, sometimes even second receiver!
He’s almost a type of utility player for the Brumbies.
That would have been the perfect sort of combination of skills if he was still coming off the bench to boost the energy and direct the attack. But we now know that Smith is a starting flanker and will be during the foreseeable future.
On face value, it’s very entertaining to see someone of Smith’s class and quality involved in the game at all turns, out of position and needing a varied skill-set.
That kind of praise is what we are giving Rene Ranger with his rucking ability this year.
Sergio Parisse is another player who receives plaudits because he is a great number 8 in the traditional sense, but also is a greatly skilled player with the ball in hand or even on the boot occasionally – he does things above and beyond what is expected.
That’s what Smith is doing for the Brumbies, and what he started doing more during the last couple of years when he was here previously.
There is such a thing as natural leadership and Smith has those qualities due to his experience and has the “been there, done that” aura. He brings stature, and with that a calming, galvanising influence.
It was noticeable early on that Smith was tagged to get regular touches, as a distributor as much as a ball runner. He was ushering other forward runners onto the ball from his shoulder.
Then he was halfback at a short lineout – a sound position for a man with his ball-skills. Ian Prior became the first receiver and Matt Toomua shuffled out further. This set up was repeated a few times.
When lineouts were longer or Prior stepped into half-back, Smith would end up being the first receiver to crash the ball over the gain-line or pass to someone on his shoulder.
All this involvement was working but there were also numerous dropped ball moments around Smith and his passes. There was also some questionable pass selection.
Some of the people Smith selected were consequently driven backwards because they weren’t the right person to be carrying.
Other times Smith got a bit too creative. That was typified by the inside flick ball to Henry Speight from a lineout that wasn’t high enough or expected and resulted in a drop.
Being in the posture of a ball distributor also caused Smith himself to be driven backward a number of times.
You could tell the times Smith was thinking only about carrying successfully because he drove his legs into contact, stooped forward and bent the line back.
Other times Smith was caught in a half and half mindset of passing or running and was knocked solidly backward. His body height wasn’t low enough and he wasn’t carrying enough speed to the line.
There was noticeable a ripple effect that was the result of Smith being such a heavily involved player.
Toomua arguably benefited from some of the involvement by being able to pick his spots a little more, focus on cleaning up kicks from deep and make very incisive kicks himself. But it also meant that he wasn’t able to fully control and unleash the very potent backline very often.
Further on down the line was Christian Lealiifano, who is one of the form players of the last two years in this tournament and for the majority of the game he was almost silent.
The Brumbies need to be careful to ensure there is enough opportunity for the likes of Lealiifano to show their wares.
When he kicked his first penalty of the night I realised that he hadn’t been involved in a play significantly until that swing of the leg. That is going to stop the Brumbies being as good as they can be.
In the 29th minute was the first time I saw Lealiifano receive the ball in space with the option of running himself or giving it to the man outside him.
He went in and away and was only just dragged down by his opponent, well past the gain line. That opportunity came down a 15m blindside. That’s not often enough, or juicy enough for someone with his skillset.
I think the involvement of Smith’s wider skills should be part of the Brumbies plan. A useful comparison for his deployment could be Keiran Read. But having the ball in his hands too often prevents Toomua and Lealiifano from having enough touches to do what they do best.
When the ball went to Toomua at first receiver off a lineout the first time, his run to the line was fast and the deft inside ball almost put Henry Speight away. Later in the game he did put Joseph Tomane through a hole with a lovely inside ball.
Lealiifano also is too good to be relegated to a tackling and place-kicking automaton.
The bright side is that Smith had three ruck turnovers that I counted and was very disruptive when he was around that area of the park during Stormers possession. He’s still a very able tackler and ball runner.
I think the Brumbies need to use Smith’s talents fully but be aware that he’s a fantastic open-side and use those skills the most. Doing that releases the rest of the team that much more.