'What concerned me was the 'dumbing down' of Australian rugby. For a long time, Australian rugby was the most innovative on the planet'
When mentioning the name Wayne Smith and rugby, many would think of the former All Black and coaching maestro who has quietly been the cornerstone of much of New Zealand rugby’s success this century.
Yet there is another Wayne Smith in rugby, arguably the doyen of Australian Rugby journalism for the past several decades, and he recently decided to put down the quill after a career that started in 1971 as a cadet for the Brisbane Telegraph and ended as the chief rugby scribe for The Australian.
Akin to his Kiwi namesake, the man affectionally known as ‘Smithy’ has quietly been the cornerstone of his trade and despite not being a capped international or a coach of any repute, Wayne Smith’s intelligence and understanding of the game has had an influence on Australian rugby that cannot be underestimated.
The indomitable Queenslander has never feared to ask the hard question and his courage to tackle many issues in the Australian game has often kept players, coaches and administrators alike accountable.
Smith’s ability to cut through the ‘BS’ and get to the crux of any issue and to report it so with absolute clarity is his genius. Smithy will leave a void in Australian rugby journalism that will be exceptionally hard to fill.
RugbyPass writer Nick Turnbull sat down for a Q&A with Australian Rugby’s famous writer.
Q. Wayne Smith, congratulations on a magnificent career and thank you for taking the time to speak with RugbyPass. Players often know when it’s time to retire, coaches often get retired and administrators the same. However, how does a rugby journalist know when it’s time to move on?
A. I confess that the day-to-day grind of gathering news began to wear me down. I still derived tremendous satisfaction from writing my columns. Not so much the news stories. I’ve always loved being able to break a major news story, so that fall-off in enthusiasm did send me a message.
Q. What was the first game of rugby you covered?
A. The first game I ever covered was undoubtedly a Brisbane club fixture. I can picture the day, going up to the press box and finding myself in the company of the great Frank O’Callaghan. I know that one team was Brothers – and not just because Frank was there. Back in 1971, virtually every Brothers player also played for Queensland and tries were coming so thick and fast that I almost lost count. But I can’t recall the other side.
The first representative game I covered was Queensland against the British Lions on May 12, 1971. It was the Lions’ opening match of a tour that would take them to New Zealand where the only other match they lost was to the All Blacks in the second of four tests in Christchurch. I recall the Lions used a switch kick-off to start the match, aiming left and kicking right and almost scored within seconds.
But Queensland fought back and really took it to the Lions, who were straight off the plane. So strong was the Queensland side that Jules Guerassimoff and David L’Estrange could not be accommodated in the starting side, though heaven knows what the Lions thought when Rod Kelleher was injured and Guerassimoff came on as his replacement.
The indelible memory I have of that 15-11 win is the huge field goal landed by Lloyd Graham. The Lions would go on to have an undefeated run through another 21 provincial matches but, as was their custom, they always handed over their mascot to the first side that beat them – and that was Queensland. It remains today as Queensland rugby’s proudest possession.
Q. You have covered Australian rugby from the days of absolute amateurism, ‘sh-amateurism’ all the way through to professionalism and its evolution. What are your reflections on how Australian rugby has adapted and evolved during these periods?
A. I’ve often said that Australian rugby was the most professional in the world at a time when the game was amateur. The presence of rugby league made that inevitable.
Competing against a professional rival rugby code in your own backyard made rugby all the sharper. Australian rugby had to fight harder than anywhere in the world just to keep its players. Still, each year, there would be a steady drain to rugby league.
When the game finally did turn professional in 1995, rugby was brilliantly placed to steal a march on the rest of the world. Rugby league had taught it many painful lessons but the most important was that – with some conspicuous exceptions – the Wallabies could tackle. It is no fluke that Australia won the first World Cup of the professional era and went within 30 seconds of a kick-off for the second. Both those performances were built on defence.
Over time the rest of the world caught up and, sadly, went past Australia. What concerned me was the ‘dumbing down’ of Australian rugby. For a long time, Australian rugby was the most innovative on the planet and opposing teams acknowledged that the Wallabies were the cleverest team they faced. Not any more, although I do like the direction in which Dave Rennie is taking his young brigade.
Q. What is your favourite era of Australian rugby and why?
A. I suppose the expected response would be the 1990s. After all, Australia won two World Cups in this period. But I didn’t cover either. The 1991 tournament was Frank O’Callaghan’s farewell tour and by the time of the 1999 tournament I was (temporarily) not writing rugby.
So my favourite era would be the dozen or so years in advance of them, starting with the Wallabies’ 30-16 win over the All Blacks at Eden Park. The following year, they beat them again in Sydney to win the Bledisloe Cup, while 1980 delivered what was arguably the greatest performance by an Australian provincial side when Queensland beat the All Blacks.
Australia could have won its first Grand Slam on the 1981-2 tour of Europe but Paul McLean had a rare bad tour with the boot. Then, after a drawn series against Scotland, nine Queenslanders announced their retirement from Test rugby, including the Holy Trinity of Mark Loane, Tony Shaw and McLean. But that allowed Bob Dwyer to take a young but vastly talented side to New Zealand where they shook the All Blacks mightily before losing the series 2-1. It was the world’s first real taste of Ella magic.
The following year introduced Australian rugby to the Pumas’ ‘bajada’ with the Wallabies having to dig deep to draw the series in the Second Test. Next came the Alan Jones era, which produced the 1984 Grand Slam and the 1986 Bledisloe Cup triumph in New Zealand.
But by 1987, the year of the inaugural World Cup, the Wallabies were running out of steam, losing to France in an epic semi-final. Dwyer returned as coach and Australia began its steady climb to the ultimate triumph of 1991, though there were some heartbreaks along the way, most especially the squandered test series against the British and Irish Lions in 1989.
But the critical result, the one which ensured Dwyer would remain as coach, came in Wellington when Sam Scott-Young dragged himself off his death bed to play a blinder as the All Blacks’ unbeaten run of 50 matches, including 23 tests, was finally broken as Australia won 21-9. It set the scene for the heroics of the following year.
Q. What was the hardest issue in Australian rugby for you to report on and why?
A. The widely-expected answer would be the Israel Folau issue. And that truly did become difficult, with everything written being subjected to the ‘woke’ test. But the issue I found most painful was the decision to cull an Australian side from Super Rugby in 2017.
I believe the response of Hamish McLennan last year when he called NZ’s bluff and simply demanded the inclusion of five Australian teams showed what could have been done.
But in 2017, the belief was that one team had to go and it very quickly was reduced to Melbourne Rebels v Western Force. My argument was that it was a whole-of-rugby problem and so deserved a whole-of-rugby solution.
But the then Australian Rugby Union was intent on culling a side and right from the moment it sold the ARU its licence, the Force’s head was on the block. I called for the removal of the entire board of the ARU but in the end the only resignation was that of Geoff Stooke, the brave Western Australian who opposed the axing of the Force. It was an ugly time in Australian rugby.
Q. You have no doubt had your rivals in the press box, but who have been the scribes who have had an influence on your career and why?
A. Initially Frank O’Callaghan of The Courier-Mail. As a young journalist with the Telegraph I was nominally Frank’s rival. For the first couple of years, I scarcely landed a blow on him, so totally did he have the game wrapped up.
But he taught me to be persistent and I confess some of my most satisfying moment were beating him to a story and then watch across the adjoining newsrooms as he winced when he read the final edition of the Telegraph. But he was a wonderful man and while I probably didn’t need any encouragement, he taught me it was okay for a journalist to cheer in the press box, so long as it was Queensland scoring against NSW.
Over the years, I have learned so much from Jim Webster, Phil Wilkins and Jimmy Woodward but the Sydney journalist who had the most profound influence on my career was Greg Growden. He was absolutely fearless and while I often felt that he had taken his criticism too far, I still admired the zeal with which he argued his case.
Certainly, everyone at ARU headquarters must have dreaded his exposes of Fort Fumble. It came as a devastating shock when he died last year, far too young
Q. What was your favourite rugby assignment abroad and why?
A. In 1989, The Courier-Mail sent me to South America with the Queensland team. It was John Connolly’s debut as Queensland coach and it was fascinating to watch his development on that tour.
The stories came thick and fast – the attempt by Chile to use seven South Africans in their side to play the Maroons and the Australian Foreign Affair’s fears that Queensland would organize a seven-a-side match against them.
It did get me crash-tackled in a game of touch by captain Bill Campbell for revealing that one of the Queensland players had said that he would play the South Africans anywhere at any time – which I thoroughly deserved but it was such a good quote – but I was treated as one of the players for the entire tour and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
And to be there on the ground floor while a player like Jason Little took his first steps as a serious rugby player was an extraordinary privilege.
Q. What was your favourite in-bound assignment and why?
A. The 2003 Rugby World Cup. I had been lured across from The Courier-Mail to The Australian that year by the offer of a feature writing job on the colour magazine but then, at the last moment, I was asked to cover the rugby.
It was supposed to be just for one year. Instead, it lasted 18 years, not that I am complaining. It was a tough gig, with Growden and Peter Jenkins then the two dominant rugby journalists but I did have some fun with England’s truck-and-trailer tactics. I’m still fighting that war, though now it has morphed into the driving maul. It is not a war I expect to win but, in my mind, it is legalized obstruction.
Q. You have a 24-hour flight to the UK and you get the chance to sit next to a fellow journalist for its entirety. Who would it be and why?
A. Robert “Crash” Craddock. Crash is as genuine a guy as he comes across on television and has forgotten more about cricket than I could ever hope to remember. He is an outstanding storyteller and would make the hours fly by.
Q. Let’s talk about the best Australian players and best foreign players you have seen. I’ll ask best Australian forward and why? Best foreign forward and why? Best Australian back and why? Best foreign back and why? Best Australian Captain and why?
A. Best forward – John Eales. He is the best Wallaby I have ever seen but, even so, it is a close-run thing with Mark Loane, the Queensland and Australian number eight. But Eales was exceptional. Who has ever heard of a 2m tall second-rower kicking goals to win a Bledisloe test?
Best foreign forward and best foreign captain – Richie McCaw. Well, of course, he was a cheat. I just wish he was “our cheat”. The All Blacks captain was the central figure in just about every test he played, with even the referee deferring to him. It was a rare day when the Wallabies beat him, but all the more special because of it.
Best back – a lot of names are bouncing around in my head: Mark Ella, Roger Gould, Michael O’Connor, Steve Larkham, Brendan Moon, but for sheer perfection in his role, it is impossible to go past Tim Horan. I believe he was the best 12 ever to play the game and, goodness knows, there are some famous inside centres who have done the rounds.
Best foreign back – Serge Blanco, Dan Carter, Jonah Lomu, Brian O’Driscoll….the list goes on. But the player who gave me most enjoyment was Christian Cullen of the All Blacks. He didn’t have Lomu’s explosive power or size but he could carve up a defence like no-one else.
Best captain – There was a degree of consternation when I picked Andrew Slack as the best outside centre I had seen during my career, ahead of Jason Little or Daniel Herbert. So I imagine there will be more protests on the way when I chose him ahead of World Cup-winning captains Nick Farr-Jones and Eales.
But bear with me. He led the side to the Grand Slam in 1984 and then found a way of topping it, as captain of the Australian side to beat the All Blacks on their own soil in 1986. Understated, modest to a fault, but Slack was nonetheless the man who welded.
Q. What was your favourite Australian side and why?
A. The 1978 Wallabies who beat the All Blacks 30-16 at Eden Park. Yes, it was the dead third test of a series that the All Blacks had already won – though Australia had a conversion attempt to win the first test in Wellington after the bell. But with their coach in hospital with a heart attack and a string of top-line Wallabies out, a ragtag Wallabies outfit inflicted the greatest defeat on the All Blacks to that point in their history.
Q. What was favourite side to tour this country and why?
A. The Irish side of 1979. Absolutely delightful tourists – right up to the point where they beat Australia 2-0 in the series. The English and the Welsh, the Australian had no trouble building up a hatred against them. Hence the Battle of Ballymore in 1975 against England. But the Irish were such nice people. Come match day, however, Ollie Campbell and Colin Patterson, Fergus Slattery, Willie Duggan and Ciaran Fitzgerald, turned into cold-hearted killers. Campbell did not miss a kick in the series.
Q. Who has been your favourite Australian coach and why?
A. How can I say anyone else but John Connolly, given that I travelled to Bath to persuade him to apply for the Wallabies coaching position when it became apparent that Eddie Jones was doomed in 2005.
He should have been given the job back in 1996 but interstate politics brought him down. He inherited a side that basically didn’t have a scrum and though he and scrum coach Michael Foley worked desperately hard to rectify that, he still was brought undone by it in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final against England.
I didn’t get to cover the Rod Macqueen era but Connolly had the best winning percentage of any other Australian coach of the professional era, winning 64 per cent of tests.
Besides, he told me everything.
Q. How would you like to see Australian rugby develop in the next 5 years?
A. How about some set piece moves from first phase?
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