Waikato rugby coach returns to his roots
GEORGE Simpkin has come full circle. The well travelled former Waikato rugby coach of some renown started coaching at the Matamata Rugby Club as a 22-year-old player-coach back in 1966.
This season, at the age of 70, Simpkin is back as United Matamata Sports’ senior A coach in the Waikato first division, having coached rugby somewhere in the world every year in between.
An innovative thinker, he made his name as the longest serving Waikato provincial coach, taking charge of the Mooloos for nine seasons from 1976-84, beating France, lifting the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland and getting the province out of second division.
Before that the Northland-born school teacher had taken a talent-laden Matamata College First XV on a 56-match winning streak with the flick-passing, flat-standing backline style that later helped in that shield upset in 1980.
From there Simpkin, who is a life member of the Waikato Rugby Union, headed to Fiji, then, after taking the Fijians to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, he left in November 1987 and headed to Hong Kong.
‘‘I got rugby going in Hong Kong. When I went there there were no Chinese playing rugby in Hong Kong – it was just a white man’s game,’’ said Simpkin. ‘‘ Now there are thousands.’’
That was the start of a 16-year stay in Hong Kong where his ability to think outside the square and to organise brought about all sorts of innovations in the international game, both in sevens and 15s.
He did a time management study of sevens and with the Hong Kong Sevens the be-all and end-all of the shortened form of rugby at international level in those days, he effected a number of changes through the 1990s.
These included the quick lineout throw-in, drop kicks for try conversions, eight ball boys/girls retrieving the ball, the try-scoring team kicking off at the restart and hookers binding under the props at scrum time – all things now taken for granted.
They were all changes in a bid to speed up the game and produce more tries and several of them eventually found their way into the 15-a-side code.
While in Hong Kong, Simpkin took up on a Canadian idea and went into manufacturing and marketing the world’s first rugby goal-kicking tees, which eventually replaced the traditional digging of holes in the pitch and then sand to tee the ball up on.
‘‘Stransky, Eales, Mehrtens, Carter – they all used them. My tees won three world cups.’’ He also formed the international clothing company Kukri before splitting with his business partner.
When the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China loomed in 1997, Simpkin realised that of the five grounds available to rugby in the country, three of them were British military grounds and unless the Chinese army played rugby, the sport would die there.
So they raised money in Hong Kong and he went and successfully introduced rugby to the Red Army in mainland China and sevens is now a national sport there, thanks to its inclusion in the Olympic Games.
Simpkin has had an association with rugby sevens in China ever since and still coaches one of the smaller provincial unions which last year upset the Hong Kong national side in the final of the All China Games.
‘‘Around the world now, under the radar, there’s a huge move towards sevens,’’ he said.
Simpkin and his wife Pip decided to retire to Sri Lanka where they had made a number of friends through his business interests, but he soon became Sri Lankan national coach and only left three years later when the Tamil uprising Too old to get a coaching job in England, he then moved to Germany where he coached at a old established Frankfurt club but also coached the national sevens team.
In another bid to retire, the Simpkins returned to New Zealand in 2008, but were asked to return to Germany the following year, this time in Heidelberg.
Now they divide their time between Tauranga and Matamata, the latter where he bought a house so that he could attend night matches at Waikato Stadium.
While he still has business interests overseas and owns sevens tournaments in Sri Lanka, Budapest and Jerusalem, he wanted to help out at the struggling United Matamata Sports club and has ended up coaching there again.
Simpkin is worried about the state of rugby in New Zealand, particularly in the area of recruitment and retention of young players.
‘‘There’s not enough lateral thinking on how to go out and capture the youth, particularly in the rural areas where the parents are already inclined towards rugby. There’s no-one going out there and organising in the schools and organising teachers.
‘‘It used to be in the old days that the teachers did all that but not any more.’’ He would like to see rugby unions organising in-service courses for teachers on how to organise rather than coach rugby in schools.
‘‘As long as they can organise kids to be in a certain place at a certain time, they can marry up with someone who has been taught how to coach.
‘‘If a school is preparing kids for life after school, then surely the influence of sport in school, recreational activities in school is just as important as anything else in providing a vehicle into community life after school, and I don’t think that’s being met.’’
Simpkin has also seen plenty of exciting young talent in his travels around Waikato rugby fields this season with the Matamata team and feels it just requires better identifying and channelling.
Sports and education administrators in general could do worse than tap into the experience and lateral thinking of this school teacher- turned- rugby coaching gypsy who has returned to the town and province where it all started for him.
He has plenty to offer.
Back in charge: George Simpkin with his United Matamata Sports first division rugby team.