Smith hopes positive thinking can help England get the jump on Kangaroos

Guardian Small Guardian - November 2008

The coach is looking to a consultant to blunt Australia's edge tomorrow.

Tony Smith wants his England team to be positive when they play Australia.

When England face Australia in their first defining challenge of the World Cup tomorrow, the coach, Tony Smith, will be employing some very unorthodox thinking. He will relay messages to the players through a management consultant who previously worked as a human resources director for Unilever.

Damian England KitDamian Hughes's varied CV also includes a couple of brief encounters with Brian Clough as a schoolboy trainee with Nottingham Forest, five years on the junior coaching staff at Manchester United, a classics degree from Leeds University, helping his dad to keep Mancunian youth on the straight and narrow at the Collyhurst and Moston Lads Club - Brian Hughes was awarded the MBE in 2000 for his services to boxing, which included coaching Robin Reid to a world title - and publishing three books on organisational psychology.

That is a suitably unorthodox background for a ground-breaking rugby league appointment, which follows the trail blazed by Sir Clive Woodward who described the round-the-world yachtsman turned motivational guru Humphrey Walters as a key figure behind England's World Cup success in Australia in the other rugby code five years ago.

The brief of Hughes, pictured right, is both straightforward and daunting: instilling a belief in the England players that they can end Australia's long dominance of international rugby league.

"It's taken a lot of courage on Tony's part to bring somebody like me in," said the 35-year-old, who addressed the players in a team meeting in their Melbourne hotel on the bank of the Yarra last night. "The orthodox thing is to ask how many caps you've won and stuff like that.

"But when you're at the level these guys are, talent equals itself out. Physically there's very little different, and tactically, Tony's a world-class coach. So it comes down to mentality and how you deal with pressure and change and issues like that. That's what might make the difference in this World Cup.

"The pressure on the players does become more intense. The other night we went to a reception in Melbourne which was supposed to be a celebration of 100 years of England playing Australia, but the videos they showed were of about 50 Australian tries, and then some fleeting footage of us being successful before 1963.

"The good thing was the players were all aware of it and as we came away they laughed about it. It was just another example of them trying to convince us that we've got no chance, and that they're superior. It's important to be aware of that and be prepared for it."

Hughes's connection with Smith goes back to a chance encounter with the Leeds captain and England loose forward Kevin Sinfield during a sports discussion progamme hosted by the late Tony Wilson on BBC Radio Manchester three years ago.

"Kevin invited me to come and see Tony, and we just hit it off straight away," Hughes explained. "When he got the England job he gave me a role as coaching consultant. Rather than impose standards on the players we allowed them to have control, and they imposed on themselves a more stringent set of standards than any of the coaches would have done.

"They are a very impressive bunch. With the boxing and when I was coaching at United I've been around a rarefied atmosphere, and seen the sacrifices that are required. I've seen it in business too and this lot are as good as any I've seen."

They were not overly impressive in beating Papua New Guinea 32-22 in their opening World Cup game in Townsville last Saturday, making an improved performance against Australia tomorrow imperative for their credibility even though both teams are almost certain to make the semi-finals whatever the result.

But Hughes stresses that they are working to a five-week plan. "It's not where you start, it's how you finish. In rugby union, can you remember who England played in their first few games when they won the World Cup? The focus is on who we play on November 22 and this is just a step along the way."

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