MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Former Australia flanker George Smith is in the frame to face the British and Irish Lions a second time after securing a contract extension with the ACT Brumbies that should pave the way for a recall to the Wallabies.
The 32-year-old, one of Australia’s finest loose forwards in a glittering 110-cap career, was to head back to Japan after finishing his short-term Brumbies contract at the end of May, but his Tokyo-based club Suntory have allowed him to remain with the Canberra-based side until the end of the Super Rugby season.
“He’s been given the all-clear (by Suntory) to complete the rest of the season for us,” a Brumbies team spokesman told Reuters by telephone on Thursday.
Smith’s brilliant form for the Brumbies, coupled with the loss of Wallabies openside flanker David Pocock, should be enough for the Australian Rugby Union to ignore their usual practice of only allowing players based in Australia on long-term contracts to be eligible for selection.
The ARU declined to comment, but a Wallabies team spokesman said Australia coach Robbie Deans would be meeting with Smith after the Brumbies clash with the Queensland Reds in Brisbane this weekend to discuss his plans.
“I don’t think there would be too many dissenting voices if he were deemed eligible,” the spokesman told Reuters.
“The key unknown at the moment is George, himself. We haven’t actually heard whether he actually wants to play for Australia again.”
Smith returned to Australia only last month after leading Suntory to their fifth All-Japan title and has helped lift the Canberra-based Brumbies to the top of the southern hemisphere competition’s table as the season approaches the halfway mark.
“This has been a special opportunity for me and my family, to return to the Brumbies for what will probably be the last time,” Smith said in a statement released by the Brumbies.
“I’ve already been lucky enough to build a legacy I am proud of with the club, so to be given another chance to add to that is exciting.”
If Smith were to make the Wallabies team for the three matches against the Lions in June and July, he would be facing the tourists in a second series having played in all three of the matches in Australia’s 2-1 win in 2001.
Deans dumped Smith from the Wallabies set-up in 2009 in order to bring Pocock into the frame, but gets an immediate opportunity to assess his form against the up and coming Queensland Reds’ openside Liam Gill at Lang Park on Saturday.
The 20-year-old Gill, who, along with 21-year-old Michael Hooper, were in a 30-man squad invited to a Wallabies’ planning camp last weekend and are both strong contenders for the number seven jersey in Pocock’s absence.
Having a player of Smith’s experience available to face the Lions would be a bonus for the Wallabies, Dave Dennis, capped 12 times for Australia and a likely back-row partner for Smith, told Reuters on Thursday.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in Australian rugby that doesn’t feel as though he would add value to a test team playing against the Lions,” the 27-year-old said by telephone.
”Apart from the fact that he’s actually experienced (a Lions series) before, which is a rare trait, he’s also playing quality football.
“If he’s around and he’s selected it’s obviously going to add a lot of value to the squad so I don’t think there will be too many complaints if he’s in that squad.”
Reds coach Ewen McKenzie, touted as a possible successor to New Zealander Deans, is unlikely to be among the supporters of a possible recall, however.
McKenzie told reporters this week that it would be wrong for the ARU to allow Smith to be eligible for the Lions tour if he could not be available for the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship or the season-ending tour to Europe.
“You can’t just cherry pick your way through it,” McKenzie said.
Smith’s contract extension allows him to remain with the Brumbies until their final game, which at the latest would be the Super Rugby championship match on August 3 if they advance that far in the playoffs.
The Wallabies host New Zealand on August 17 for their first match of the Rugby Championship, which also includes South Africa and Argentina.
Editing by John O'Brien/Greg Stutchbury