Vale Wayne Smith: Keyboard Craftsman Made Rugby A Richer Experience

Wed, Jun 7, 2023, 4:21 AM
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
Wayne Smith is a beloved figure missed by Rugby fans, journalists, spectators, players and administrators alike. Photo: Supplied
Wayne Smith is a beloved figure missed by Rugby fans, journalists, spectators, players and administrators alike. Photo: Supplied

For one who wore glasses of Coke bottle thickness, rugby journalist Wayne Smith had an amazing clarity when it came to writing about every twitch of high achievement or flaw in the game.

The words that flowed from, firstly, his typewriter and his feisty laptop abruptly stopped on Tuesday with his sudden death at 69 on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

The game is so much richer for his passionate words documenting the history and rollercoaster trajectory of the code over the past 53 years.

You won’t find “Wayne Smith” in a dictionary but perhaps you do under “wordsmith.” He was rugby’s most skilled user of the written word in this country.

It’s not unfair to say “Smithy” raised his voice at more Wallabies coaches and chief executives across his career than any rugby writer. He hung up the phone more than once. For all that, those same coaches and CEOs deeply respected his knowledge and passion, briefed him “off the record”, admired his tenacity and always knew he reached tens of thousands of rugby fans on a daily basis.

Smith formed many lasting bonds in rugby but few greater than those with significant players from the Queensland teams of the 1970s who dubbed him Woody Allen for his bespectacled look.

As he should have, he took it as a great personal honour that the Mark Loanes, Tony Shaws and Paul McLeans of that era should respect him so much that he be asked, in 2016, to offer the toast at a reunion of the famous 1976 team.

Any celebration of a Queensland team thrashing NSW by 42-4 was right in Smith’s wheelhouse. Of all the teams he covered, “this team is the one that most touches my soul.”

These are snatches from Smith’s wonderful toast which he rated the greatest honour of his career involved in rugby.

“I fear I would have become literally a one-eyed journalist had not (ophthamologist) Mark Loane saved my retina from detaching a few years back. Alas, though, he has not been able to rectify my habit of seeing everything though a maroon tinge,” Smith told the audience. 

“Paul McLean makes contact from time to time, whenever he thinks I am being unkind to the board of the Australian Rugby Union. Which is to say, about once a week…” 

(L-R) Jim Tucker, Greg Growden, Wayne Smith, Gordon Bray. Photo Supplied
(L-R) Jim Tucker, Greg Growden, Wayne Smith, Gordon Bray. Photo Supplied

Smith went on to wax about the feeling at his beloved Ballymore that day where a final high kick was put up for a NSW defender to touch moments before being trampled by the Queensland pack. 

“The roar that went up from the Ballymore crowd that day didn’t belong to a sporting arena. It was something visceral, something gladiatorial, a sound seldom heard since the days of the Coliseum,” Smith said.

Smith was still in his teens when he covered his first rugby match for The Telegraph newspaper in Brisbane in 1971. He was a magnet for historic moments because Queensland upset the British and Irish Lions that day.

Shortly after, he was covering his first Test on the strife-torn South African tour of Australia when a State of Emergency was declared to enhance police powers to disperse apartheid protesters.

Being in the thick of such historic events was like pure adrenaline for Smith. You’d call the smoke from his laptop, the friction from him striking the keys feverishly but for knowing that IT was his short suit.

Smith said the most fun he had on any rugby tour was covering Queensland's 1989 tour to Argentina under Reds coach John "Knuckles" Connolly.

Smith was in his element in Santiago when intrigue flared around how stacking the Chilean team with a bunch of Springboks would get around world sports sanctions over South Africa's apartheid policy.

Smith busily rang Federal Government contacts and chased down every lead until it was calculated that only seven Boks could play. The newsman found the Boks in their hotel, told them the verdict and the South Africans pulled out of the match because it would mean sidelining one of their players. Smith had his yarn.

"Smithy filed a lot of his stories on that tour from phone boxes. He'd hire a local bloke, throw on a helmet and jump on the back of a motorbike with pad in hand to get the story through," Connolly said.

"He covered the biggest stories in rugby and always called a spade a spade. Queensland rugby will miss him most of all because he had a genuine love of the game watching through his red eye and his maroon one." 

Smith’s rugby writing for The Courier-Mail and for The Australian had a must-read quality. When he retired from The Australian in 2021, his sports editor Wally Mason fielded countless calls “no Smith, no subscription.” 

Wallabies great Tim Horan still has a copy of the Smith article written after his debut against the All Blacks in Auckland in 1989. Rugby writers were allowed into dressing rooms in those days. Smith was sitting with Horan when All Black Joe Stanley came in to offer Horan his jersey as a worthy opponent.

Horan didn’t want to part with his own but Stanley calmed him and said it was a one-way trade and he should accept the black jersey as a welcome to the Test arena.

On the spot, Smith filed a story of the honour within Test rugby’s great battle.

When rugby shied away from putting a fully working microscope on the game’s shortcomings, “Smithy” donned his professor’s jacket and went searching.

Former ARU chief executive John O’Neill settled a truce with Smith over lunch a few years ago when both agreed life was too short to stay on battle footing.

“We agreed to disagree more than once but Wayne was a consummate professional who put heart and soul into every sport he covered,” O’Neill said.

“His attention to detail was superb, he cherished his friendships in a game that was far more than a pastime to him and he cared about it deeply.”

Smith was only ever mistaken once for a Wallaby when told by a player to act like the team's reserve halfback to receive some cut-price goodies on a wool store visit in Auckland after Australia's epic 30-16 win in 1978.

A player tossed him a packaged woollen jumper, Smith caught it with soft hands and an admiring Kiwi shopper nodded: "Yes, you can see why he's a Wallaby."

Such impersonations were only done under extreme circumstances like on pool deck at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Duncan Armstrong won a stunning 200m freestyle swimming gold medal.

Rugby Australia mourns the passing of journalist Wayne Smith

Intent on getting a quick Armstrong interview on deadline, Smith took off his shirt, puffed out his bare chest, turned his media accreditation over and bluff-walked by Korean security into the warm-up pool area.

Armstrong was surprised but he gave Smith the few rapid quotes he was after.   

Former AAP rugby writer Jim Morton was a colleague on several Wallabies tours and one-off Test weekends in New Zealand with Smith. 

“I feel privileged to have spent countless seasons beside Wayne in press boxes, media conferences and training sessions all around the world,” Morton said.

“There was no better example in the arts of chasing a story and also nailing a match report. Every word was a gem for Smithy and he would refer to them as his ‘little soldiers’ going to war for his yarn. 

“Wayne was the most passionate Queenslander and it would pain him immensely when the Reds let him down. One time, in the dark days of the mid-2000s when the Reds were feebly giving up a match-winning lead, he stormed out the back of the Suncorp Stadium press box to bellow 'I despair at the state of Queensland rugby!'. Despite this, he remained the most objective of reporters.

 “His blow-ups weren't limited to what he saw on the field. Often technology wasn't his friend, and he'd let his editors and IT support desk know it, especially on deadline. He was well aware of his temper and self-deprecatingly shared this with his wonderful wife Robyn in the early days of their relationship.

“She crafted two coloured cards - one red and one yellow - and presented them to me at the start of one Super Rugby season with instructions to use them and send him off when he crossed the line. They got some action.”

This tribute only touches on a five-decade career and Smith’s awarding-winning coverage of Olympic swimming would replicate the same praise and respect.

Vale Wayne Smith. He is survived by wife Robyn, his children and grandchildren.

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