Waikato rugby coach re­turns to his roots

Matamata Chronicle - - News - By EVAN PEG­DEN

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.

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