Top rugby league coach Tony Smith will be rooting for James Willstrop at next month’s AJ Bell World Squash Championship in Manchester
Smith, boss of Super League Grand Finalists Warrington Wolves, is a squash fanatic.
So, when he’s not plotting the downfall of his team’s opponents, the 46-year-old Australian can be found on court at Skelmanthorpe Squash Club, West Yorkshire.
Alternatively, he will swap coaching ideas with Willstrop’s dad, Malcolm, at Pontefract Squash & Leisure Club, where he developed his own skills.
Indeed, Smith, who guided Warrington to Challenge Cup final glory at Wembley in 2009, 2010 and 2012, regularly takes his squad to ‘Ponty’ for alternative training days.
“When I was coach at Leeds Rhinos, one of the players, Barrie McDermott, had a testimonial and one of his functions was at Pontefract,” explained Smith, who also led England at the 2008 World Cup in Australia.
“Barrie knew I played socially so I was asked to attend that event. I finished up taking on Lee Beachill who, at the time, was world number one. Or close to it. I became friends with Malcolm Willstrop and I have gone back ever since.
“If I have a day off then he throws me on court with some of his professionals and abuses me about my squash ability. Then I buy him lunch and we talk about our coaching philosophies. It’s my ideal day off.”
Fellow Super League coach, Richard Agar of Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, is another tidy player and rivalry is every bit as fierce as when their respective sides go head-to-head. Smith is also happy to take on challenges from within his own squad.
“We have taken our players over there three or four times for training,” explains Smith whose side returned to play-off duty on Thursday, beating Huddersfield Giants to reach the Grand Final for the second time in a row.
“I think there is huge benefit for us in terms of fitness, agility and footwork. There are a few players, like Lee Briers and Mickey Higham, who also fancy themselves with a racket,” adds Smith.
But even at 46, the old coach has got them safely under control. “There’s plenty of daylight between then and me,” he laughs.
However, Smith admits the gulf between him and 2010 AJ Bell World Championship runner-up, James Willstrop, is more unbridgeable.
“I’ve had a few hits with James and I am a big supporter in many ways and for many reasons. He is an inspiring and incredible role model for young sports people.
“In victory, he is one of the most gracious as he is in defeat. Certainly, he influences my outlook towards sporting events.
“He is a very good professional with a fantastic attitude. Anybody who watches squash must enjoy watching James because he plays an incredible style. He always brings the utmost entertainment to a squash court and I know what it would mean to him-and to Malcolm-for him to become world champion.”
Willstrop is seeded three for the AJ Bell World Squash Championship and starts his campaign on October 28 with a match against a qualifier. Victory would set-up an all English second round meeting with Tom Richards or AJ Bell Wild Card qualifying winner Ben Coleman.