When prodigal son James Smart made the switch from the Gundagai Tigers to the Wagga Kangaroos ahead of the 2022 group 9 season, it was news that caught many of the Tiger’s faithful off guard.
Born and bred in Gundagai, Smart made his first-grade debut as a teenager against Lavington way back in 2006, and then played for Cronulla in 2008 and Canberra in 2009 and again in 2010, making a name for himself in the state-wide under 20s competition, before returning home.
As a fresh-faced 21-year-old, Smart led the club to the 2011 Group 9 grand final, losing to Southcity before again qualifying for the 2013 Group 9 grand final, this this going down to Albury, but he can be credited for being the backbone of many good Tigers teams over the past decade.
After leaving midway through the 2014 season and sitting out Gundagai’s 2015 premiership season due to a back injury, Smart returned as captain/coach in 2016 and 2017, suffering two more grand final defeats at the hands of Southcity before finally breaking through for a victory in 2018, beating the Bulls in the grand final.
Smart would win a second title in 2020, helping the Tigers to another grand final win over Tumut.
The 31-year-old that lives in Wagga these days said the decision to leave Gundagai was one of the hardest of his career, but one he had to make for work and because of the opportunity.
“It was an extremely difficult decision. It certainly wasn’t an enjoyable period, because I felt like it made a lot of sense to go, but I was really struggling with it,” Smart said.
“I spoke to a lot of people close to me, and with the club as well, and while most people were encouraging me to make the move, I struggled because Gundagai is my home.
“It felt like one of those decisions in life, that you don’t know what things will look like in 12 months’ time, but you wouldn’t know until you give it a go.”
Despite leaving, Smart had fond memories from his years as a Tiger, and he touched on the highs and lows of being such a young captain/coach back in 2011.
“It was definitely a challenge. Looking back on it now, it was a pretty big call to make to jump into something like that at that age,” Smart said.
“It was something I thought I would do one day and when I knew my time was finishing up at Canberra, I decided to head home and help the club out.
“I was keen to come home. Peter McDonald, who has been a mentor to me and someone I have always looked up to, he helped me out a lot in my first few years in coaching and so did Anthony Herring.
“In that year we had a good group, and just to get to a place of being in a grand final; not many people expected us to get there, and to fall so short at the last hurdle was hard.
“It was heartbreaking and took a while to get over, but the season itself was one of the highlights of my career.”
Since 2011, there have been plenty more highlights for Smart.
“2013 was right up there. It was tough to lose, but again, it was a good group, and we played some good footy,” Smart said.
“To finally win in 2018, that was such a relief and in that grand final in 2020, off the back of 2019 and going out of the finals the way we did, we really owed it to Skip (Adam Perry) to get that win against our arch-rivals (Tumut).
“To share a moment like that with a bloke I have a whole heap of respect for is something I’ll never forget.”
Smart’s body has started to fail him in recent years, and while he didn’t sign with the Kangaroos in a playing capacity, he wouldn’t rule out pulling on the boots.
“It hasn’t been the best run for the last 18 month,” Smart said.
“I don’t want to say at the age of 31 that I won’t play again, but in my last four games of footy, I’ve broken a hand, an arm and an ankle.
“There was plenty of times I thought it was time to give it away and because I’ve got a bit more going on with work, I don’t have the time to treat and deal with injuries like I used to.
“The main thing for me is that I don’t want to feel like I can’t contribute 100% as a player and that is something for me that has been at the front of my mind when considering if I will play again.”
Fans still could see Smart on the field this season, but he explained that would only happen if it were to benefit his side.
“If I feel as though me being on the field helps with that development, it will ultimately come down to where my body is at,” Smart said.
“It is a decision that I haven’t really made just yet. We are ticking along okay. We have been able to bring in some key players to our squad, so it might get to the point where I can purely focus on coaching but I’m not 100% sure yet.”
A return to coaching was inevitable according to the Tiger’s product, which is partly why he accepted the offer from the Kangaroos for 2022 and beyond.
“I’ve known for three or four years now that I would get back to coaching. It is draining and takes up a lot of time, but I enjoy it and I’m one of those blokes that gets a kick out of coaching,” he said.
Now with the Kangaroos, Smart said his focus was on developing the club into a competition powerhouse.
“First and foremost, I see my job as developing the guys we have got here, especially some of the younger, local players,” he said.
“My main priority is that the club has got a good core of local players that have established themselves in first-grade and then we can continue to build a team around them.”
Using the likes of Gundagai and Tumut as a model, the Roos’ coach said he would start to work on the foundations of the club, hoping to one day soon emulate both small town’s recent success in the Group 9 competition.
“It is one of the biggest factors why Gundagai, Tumut and Southcity are successful and that is because they have that good core group of locals,” he said.
“When I first came into the club, I looked across the playing group and the biggest thing I could say to the club was that we needed more guys that would create more competition for spots in first-grade and we need guys who really want to play first grade.
“Everyone would love to sign marquee players, but it’s not easy to do these days in bush footy, so there needs to be a steady process where clubs are trying to build the squad and where they are working on a core local base.”
Regardless of his new association with the Roos, Smart said he would always be a Tiger, until it came time for his Wagga club to take on the fabled Black and Gold.
“Gundagai will always be my hometown and I have a lot of nice memories from there, but once the game starts, I have to give 100% of my focus and attention to the group that I’m coaching,” Smart said.