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11 October 2023
Wayne Smith helping the Black Ferns perform a rugby miracle in 2022. Photo: Getty Images

Phil Gifford relates some of the story behind working on Sir Wayne Smith’s book, Smithy: Endless Winters and the Spring of ’22 (out now) and the inner workings of a man who has been involved in the thick of the All Blacks and rugby in general for over 40 years.

New Zealand rugby fans, and Wayne Smith himself, were surprised when he suddenly rocketed from being a mentor to head coach of the 2022 Black Ferns.

So was I, and it was almost as startling to me when, two months after he began work with the Ferns, I got a text from Wayne saying, “I’ve always said I wouldn’t do a book, but maybe it’s a project I need.”

For six years, I’d texted or emailed to wish him happy birthday from my wife and me, adding a postscript saying ‘didn’t he think it was time he did a book?’ He’d always reply, saying thanks for the birthday wishes, but adding that I was “a persistent bugger” and he wasn’t doing a book.

By the happiest of chances, his reluctance meant that when, in April of this year, we sat down to work on his autobiography, Smithy, together, there was a new, hugely enjoyable story to add: the Ferns’ triumph at the 2022 Rugby World Cup.

The Ferns, a strong-willed, gutsy group of women who had made their own way in the rugby world, often with, at best, benign neglect from NZR, proved to be a perfect match for Wayne – someone who, in a quiet, understated way, has always been a rugby revolutionary.

With the assistance of a group of coaching luminaries who were also his friends, he tipped the style the Ferns were playing on its head.

“No wonder,” co-captain Ruahei Demant told me, “they call him ‘The Professor’.”

Writing the book with Wayne was as fascinating as I’d hoped.

We’d known each other for more than 30 years. I had interviewed him at length several times, was in Christchurch when he set the Crusaders on their way to legendary status in 1998, saw at close range in 2001 how painful his rejection as All Blacks coach by NZR was, and was delighted at the esteem he would be held in after the men’s World Cup victories in 2011 and 2015.

What I discovered, as readers of his book will, was that he’s a man for whom the status quo is never enough.

His inspirations range from the number 8 wire skills of his father (“I’ve never forgotten how Dad once fixed a snapped fanbelt in our car by using Mum’s stocking”) and the analysis of defence laid out by Canterbury teammate Garry Hooper (“A hell of a character and an outstanding rugby intellectual”), to the insight of Graham Henry (“He was always ahead of the game”).

His voracious search for sporting knowledge is matched with a startling work ethic.

Smithy is my 11th sports biography, and while almost every subject has taken a close interest, nobody flung himself into the process the way Wayne did.

We had a month of interviews, virtually seven days a week at Waihi Beach, where he and his wife Trish live. There was also a plethora of detailed written notes.

He has had a career like few others in New Zealand rugby.

What was increasingly fascinating as our work progressed was that, whether as a player or a coach, there had never been, until he started working with the Black Ferns, a largely seamless rise to success.

As a promising teenage player from Putāruru, his dream was to make the Waikato team. That changed when he was told the Waikato coach in the late 1970s, George Simpkin, didn’t think he would be a good first five “as long as his arse points downwards”.

Cue a move to Christchurch, and elevation to a Canterbury side captained by No 8 Alex ‘Grizz’ Wyllie.
At first glance Smith, fresh from earning a social studies degree at Waikato University, and Wyllie, a North Canterbury farmer who defined the phrase hard-bitten, seemed an odd mix.

But when Wyllie stopped playing and started coaching Canterbury, he’d use Smith as his lynchpin at first five in the team’s great Ranfurly Shield era of 1982-85.

And by 1983, Wayne says, “the idea that Grizz was going to be a driving, up-the-guts type coach was a theory completely dispelled.”

As a coach himself, Wayne would break startlingly new ground by managing (at first by stealth) to introduce psychologist Gilbert Enoka into his teams to work on mental skills.

“In those days everyone felt if you were working on the mind, you were weak,” Enoka says in Smithy. But he and Wayne “saw the mind as a muscle”.

When Wayne was deposed as All Blacks coach in 2001, many people felt, as I did, that he was badly treated. During our taping sessions, it was startling to me to learn just how badly.

Losing his All Blacks coaching job – because NZR thought he didn’t have enough passion for the role – rates as one of the great miscalculations in the game.

“They didn’t see that I carried my passion on the inside.”

His All Blacks manager, Andrew Martin, says he regrets to this day that he didn’t “charge into” the office of NZR chief executive, David Rutherford, and say, “What are you guys up to? Because you’ve misunderstood this man.”

In reality, his love for the All Blacks was what saw him agree to return from a dream life for him and his family in Northampton in England, to start work in 2004 with Graham Henry and Steve Hansen in the All Blacks. Coaching in Northampton had been a great success for him, with huge acceptance from the locals.
Critics and the public can forget that players and coaches are human beings too, a fact that was brought home to me when Wayne talked about the furore after the All Blacks were beaten in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final by France.

There was such a bitter backlash for some Kiwis that, while many of us felt all had been forgiven long before the 2011 World Cup, Wayne revealed he actually didn’t really feel vindicated until the Cup was won against France at Eden Park.

The totally happy ending came with the Black Ferns, a joyous experience he describes as “like taking your daughters to Disneyland”.

I have a host of favourite stories from his book. Two come straight to mind.

Dan Carter detailing exactly how Wayne turned his game around when Dan was struggling before the 2015 World Cup is one. Wayne’s sister Wendy recalling one of her girlfriend’s birthday parties when they were both at primary school in Putāruru is another. She’d told Wayne he wasn’t allowed to come because the party was for girls only. He still banged on the neighbour’s door, demanding to be let in.
“You can’t,” Wendy said, “it’s just for girls.” Five minutes later he was back, demanding admittance. What had changed?

“Now he’s in one of my dresses.”

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