Sky’s Tony John­son re­calls the huge in­flu­ence Wayne Smith has had in all as­pects of New Zealand rugby.

TONY JOHN­SON IS A COM­MEN­TA­TOR AND PRE­SEN­TER FOR SKY TV’S RUGBY COV­ER­AGE IN NEW ZEALAND.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

IN 1978 I WAS POSTED TO TOKOROA as a ra­dio cadet.

It wasn’t ex­actly how I’d planned the early stages of my ca­reer. I’d re­ally hoped to be do­ing the break­fast show on a ma­jor met­ro­pol­i­tan sta­tion by the time I was 20… but the re­al­ity of my place in the scheme of things was a world away from my dreams and am­bi­tions.

It was tough go­ing. There weren’t many sin­gle 18 year old girls in ‘Toke’ for starters, I had to work week­ends and couldn’t play footy, and Ra­dio Forest­land was staffed by some fairly dis­con­tented peo­ple un­der the man­age­ment of a bloke whose only ob­vi­ous strengths were trout fish­ing and the abil­ity to drink a lot of whisky.

I proved to be a pretty av­er­age an­nouncer too, and fair to say I was quickly dis­il­lu­sioned, and home­sick for the Marl­bor­ough Sounds, my mates and my fam­ily.

But some­thing hap­pened that changed ev­ery­thing.

The bloke from Hal­len­steins, who nor­mally did the rugby re­port­ing, went away, and so I, as gen­eral dogs­body, was sent down to the Tokoroa Show­grounds to cover a Peace Cup rugby match on a mid­week af­ter­noon.

I’d loved rugby since I was a nip­per, I’d played it and I’d fol­lowed it avidly, but I’d never re­ally dreamed of be­ing a re­porter, let alone com­men­ta­tor.

But I got bit­ten by the bug stand­ing there in that press box at the Show­grounds and sud­denly re­alised what I wanted to be.

The Peace Cup was a sub unions com­pe­ti­tion, and South Waikato had a gun team. In the for­ward pack were fu­ture All Blacks Brian Mor­ris­sey, Geoff Hines and Paul ‘Bam Bam’ Koteka, as well as the gi­ant for­mer NZ Ju­niors lock JJ Williams.

In the backs were Wal­ter Lit­tle’s older brother Frankie, and a skinny kid from Pu­taruru with a mop of curly hair and a great set of hands.

That would be Wayne Smith, and you could tell he was headed for big things. It was to my great for­tune that our paths would cross again later in life.

Due to some ex­tra­or­di­nary stroke of luck and good tim­ing, Ra­dio New Zealand took me on as a trainee sports broad­caster, while Smithy went off to Christchurch, where he made it big.

Within a year he was play­ing for Can­ter­bury, and within an­other, for New Zealand.

He was a bet­ter than av­er­age test first five, at a time when sev­eral play­ers were tried in the po­si­tion, play­ing 17 times in the black jersey be­fore his ca­reer ended, as with sev­eral oth­ers, after the fate­ful Cava­liers tour of South Africa.

But of course we will more re­mem­ber him as a coach of the high­est or­der, vi­sion­ary, rev­o­lu­tion­ary, cere­bral, pas­sion­ate and em­pa­thetic.

A play­ers coach, ded­i­cated fam­ily man, a thinker with just a touch of the mad sci­en­tist, re­ferred to, with­out mal­ice, by some in his early All Blacks coaching days as ‘techno’ but more re­cently, and with ut­ter rev­er­ence as ‘The Pro­fes­sor’.

When John Kir­wan came back to New Zealand from club rugby in Italy in 1993 he talked of the new ‘vi­su­al­i­sa­tion’ tech­nique that he’d learned from his then men­tor Smith over the past north­ern win­ter, some­thing Kir­wan used to pro­long his ca­reer, but which no other coach in New Zealand would have had the faintest idea about at that time.

After a brief spell as CEO of Hawke’s Bay rugby, a pe­riod no­table for the for­ma­tion of the bold but ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful Cen­tral Vik­ings project, Smith went big time into coaching back in Can­ter­bury.

With Steve Tew he tore up the old, frayed frame­work and built a dy­nasty with the Cru­saders.

Hav­ing cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment in which play­ers could ex­cel, and turned them from no-hop­ers to cham­pi­ons in short or­der, he was pro­moted firstly to as­sist John Hart, and then when that reign turned to cus­tard, into the head coach role with the All Blacks. It was a far from smooth sail­ing. As the boss he rarely seemed com­fort­able. He never re­ally got the team around him he wanted, and never re­ally had the qual­ity of play­ers he needed, and the mount­ing pres­sures and bay­ing of the pub­lic and me­dia ac­com­pa­ny­ing an in­abil­ity to win back the Bledis­loe Cup in par­tic­u­lar af­fected his fam­ily and dam­aged his con­fi­dence.

He had to con­vince a panel of well qual­i­fied types in late 2001 that he was worth fur­ther time in the job, and did so with what the late John Gra­ham de­scribed as a quite bril­liant as­sess­ment/pro­jec­tion of where the team was at and needed to be.

But within a few hours he was back and ex­press­ing such self doubt that the panel felt they would be tak­ing a risk in reap­point­ing him, and so he walked.

Thank good­ness he came back, into an as­sis­tant role far more suited to him, al­though he had to be con­vinced by his mate Sir Ted not once, but twice.

Firstly, that he should step back into the caul­dron at all in 2004, and then again after the de­ba­cle of 2007. The re­ac­tion to the lat­ter, par­tic­u­larly from the prov­ince he had done so much for, al­most ended it again, but he was talked into giv­ing it an­other shot, and the rest is a very, very sat­is­fy­ing his­tory.

A key to his suc­cess came in the tur­bu­lent win­ter of 2009 when the All Blacks were picked apart by South Africa. “It wasn’t all that bad,” said Henry, “be­cause it made us think about what we were do­ing.”

The re­sult was a tweak­ing of roles. It seemed in­con­gru­ous that the Smith at­tack phi­los­o­phy could be chan­nelled into a de­fen­sive port­fo­lio, but it worked a treat, re­sult­ing in an abil­ity to tran­si­tion de­fence into at­tack with­out equal in the his­tory off the game.

But while so much has fo­cused on the tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tific as­pects of the Wayne Smith coaching man­ual, his in­flu­ence on team val­ues was equally pro­found.

He threat­ened to quit in 2004 un­less there was an end to the out of con­trol drink­ing cul­ture that had re-emerged in the early 2000s. He delved deeply into the his­tory of the New Zealand game to learn the legacy of past great­ness.

And he could come up with some pearls to in­spire or mo­ti­vate, such as the time in France when he picked up a hand­ful of soil ahead of the Armistice Day test in Paris, and de­liv­ered the fa­mous ‘there’s Kiwi blood in this soil, boys’ line that fired his team to a mem­o­rable vic­tory a cou­ple of days later.

And now, at the age of 60, Wayne Smith is step­ping away from the game, end­ing an as­so­ci­a­tion with the All Blacks that dates back an un­be­liev­able 37 years, 17 of them in a coaching ca­pac­ity.

Well, step­ping away from a full time role. It’s hard to imag­ine it’s com­pletely over. There’ll no doubt be the odd text or phone call and I wouldn’t bet the house on a wee cameo ap­pear­ance from time to time. He’ll be missed, for sure, by a lot of peo­ple. By his fel­low coaches, by the play­ers, and by a bloke who first saw him play way back in 1978, when he was that skinny kid from Pu­taruru with a mop of curly hair and a great set of hands.

Wayne Smith knew how to use his­tory to mo­ti­vate his team. DEEP THINKER

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