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.
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