On Tuesday I was in the State Library doing some research for an essay on the 1888 tour of Australia and New Zealand by a British rugby team (with no Irish players for some reason or other).
This tour, 125 years ago, was the first group of rugby players to come down under, and set the pattern for what has developed into the fabulous tours by British and Irish Lions side that is coming here in June.
Coming out into Macquarie Street with my head still spinning from reading the small print of various newspapers and magazines of the period, I was greeted by a mate, a knowledgeable rugby man, who said to me: “Where do you stand on George Smith playing for the Wallabies against the Lions? He was absolutely sensational last week.”
I replied: “Well, there is nowhere to stand right now because he isn’t available, as far as I know.”
Then yesterday the Courier Mail revealed that Jake White had persuaded Suntory, Smith’s employer in Japan, to extend the loan of the player to the Brumbies until the end of the Super Rugby season in August; and as it happens well inside the June Tests time-line of the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions.
This means that the 110-Test Wallaby great is available for the Wallabies, if Robbie Deans wants to use him.
It also means that if Smith is selected, the two brilliant youngsters, Liam Gill and Michael Hooper, could miss out on the chance of a rugby lifetime in playing against the Lions.
Like all good coaches, Deans puts a high value on players who have performed well for him in the past.
This is why Pat McCabe, for instance, gets selected in his Wallaby sides when he is available. And both Hooper (particularly) and Gill have played splendidly for the Wallabies. On many occasions last year Hooper was the best Wallaby on the field.
Gill (particularly) and Hooper (not so noticeably, although his statistics are excellent) have played very well this season. Gill totally out-played the Chiefs’ Sam Cane, a rising champion of New Zealand rugby as a loose forward.
But neither of them, Gill or Hooper, has played with the same damaging authority, muscularity, intelligence, impact and big cat lethalness as Smith.
His play for the Brumbies reaches back to the golden days of his prime with his sharp running, exceptional skill with the ball and the huge impact of his tackling.
Neither Gill nor Hooper were going to be the Wallaby open-side flanker in Deans’ original plans this season. David Pocock was going to be the man, and in all likelihood the captain of the side as well.
Pocock is out injured and won’t be available for the Wallabies in the series.
To me Smith brings the sort of qualities Deans wanted from Pocock in the Lions series – toughness, maturity, certainty in the tackle and an uncompromising game-sense to counter what will be a tough and wily Lions pack of hard men.
All this gives Saturday night’s monster clash between the Reds and the Brumbies at Suncorp Stadium an added edge, as many players, including Smith and Gill, go head-to-head in competition for a place in the Wallaby squad.
As I noted before, Deans’ heart will be on the side of Gill and Hooper. He has often stated that the greatest thrill of his rugby career was playing against the Lions.
He wants his players, young and old, to experience what he has experienced.
But this is one occasion where his head must over-rule his heart. It would be a terrific thing for Australian rugby to do what the Springboks did in 2009, and the All Blacks in 2005, and Rod Macqueen’s Wallabies (for the first time by the Wallabies) in 2001 and win the series against the Lions.
This is why I would argue that George Smith, playing as he is right now, is a gift to the Wallabies that Deans really has to accept.