03 June 2020

How I Learned to Play Rugby

I suppose it started with games of bullrush at primary school in Hastings. It was quite serious stuff at the time - and we learned to tackle. When my parents shifted to Taranaki bullrush was still the order of the day. On my first day at school in Kaponga we played bullrush at lunchtime. I tackled another kid and he cried. After school his big brother intercepted me on my way home from school. "You made my brother cry" he snarled as he grabbed me by my shirt collar. He then proceeded to beat me up. He was a big cow cockie's son from up near the mountain and had big milkers' fists. My parents couldn't understand why I chose the long way home from school for days after that encounter.

We had a school rugby (what else) team and used to travel to the local schools to play them. I think I played on the wing then - not that I was fast. After being fatherless for most of WW2 I was always keen to impress my father. One day when we were playing another local team at a field across from our home I happened to spy my father watching the game from a hole in the nearby hedge. I inserted myself into the inner backline and screamed for the ball. It duly arrived and I ran through the opposition fending them off right, left and centre. I ran over the goal line and raced around to ground the ball between the posts to the tune of the refs whistle - feeling very pleased with myself. The opposition swarmed over to the ref. "Sir," they clamoured, "he ran over the dead ball line before he scored the try." The ref looked at where I'd run - sure enough the field had the dead ball line very close to the try line. "Sorry son," he said, "I think they are right" and disallowed the try. I looked to where my father had been standing and he'd gone. It was the first and last time, as far as I knew, that he ever watched me play rugby. Neither that night at home nor ever afterwards was the incident ever mentioned.

Taranaki and the Hedge - Across the Road.

When we moved to Christchurch the bullrush continued and eventually I attended Secondary School at Xavier College. It was a tough school and we were expected to play rugby. We trained on cinders from the gas works across the road. We were coached by Marist Brothers who were also tough. I have a few memories of games and of training. I remember Brother Maurice, our first 15 coach and school head master teaching us how to control the ball at our feet during the days of the great forward dribbling rushes. Maurie would roll the ball forward to our feet and we would try to dribble the ball past him. My turn came and I succeeded admirably. I dribbled he ball past (and over) him and in the process managed to knock him to the ground and stomp all over him. He picked himself up from the gasworks cinders , and started to dust himself off. I'm for it I thought. All he said was, "Good grief, you're a bony bastard Smith." and left it at that.

One of my school mates, Sig Houston, was somewhat clumsy - elbows and knees and heels all over the place. You had to get into the rucks in front of him if you didn't want to be maimed. On one occasion on the West Coast we had to play on a flooded rugby field. Sig and half the scrum collapsed on top of my head burying it in about six inches of water. I remember waiting anxiously for the ref to blow his whistle - not easy when you've been gasping for air. I thought I was going to drown.

And at one stage I was selected for a Canterbury under-age representative team. We played another team further south with me at fullback. On one occasion someone kicked the ball towards me. I took it on the run, sidestepped some of the opposition, and with only one person between me and the goal line - kicked it for touch ! ! Our captain wandered over to me later to remind me that I should have linked up with some of my team mates for which would have been a certain try. I was never picked as a rep again.

In a Queensland Uni inter-faculty game I once distinguished myself by riling Jules Guerassimoff (Australian International and, soon after, chosen as one of the top five rugby players in the world) in the front row (my, and possibly Jules' first and only time as a prop) by demonstrating how not to go down in a scrum. The other players had to tear him away from me. "Don't you know who that is" they said. I was terrified!

Big Jules - "I was terrified"

And then there was my last game of rugby - two days before I married Catherine. It was the final of the University of Queensland inter-faculty rugby competition.  A little later the ball ended up in my hands and thinking I'd demonstrate to the Aussies what I understood was a 'Maori sidestep' (think of Jona Lomu and an English fullback) I ran full tilt into an opposition player. The result was an unconscious opposition player and me with a broken collar bone. Not a good way to start married life. That was my last game of rugby. But I still enjoy watching it.

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