An exceptional Kiwi prepares to exit stage left after the World Cup final. Tim Murphy watches Wayne Smith share his wisdom and his love with rugby media
At the risk of sounding all David Cunliffe* on you, I’m sorry for writing about a man.
On the eve of the women’s Rugby World Cup final, the Black Ferns’ last press conference featured two star players and one, male, coach.
LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden, who’s followed this team and this Cup with relentless class, of course got to write about Ruby Tui and Kendra Cocksedge. As her assistant, I got to write about the man, Wayne Smith.
But it’s a sorry, not sorry, from me.
Smith gave a 22-minute press conference of rare, laid-back, candour and composure. There would be few New Zealanders, of any pursuit, who at the latest peak in a career of highs could come across so genuinely humble and enjoying himself.
There’s been much talk throughout this World Cup of how the women are such great TV and media talent, how they put the All Blacks men in the shade for daring to be real, show personality and speak directly and from the heart.
At Thursday’s press conference, Smith, in his Black Ferns’ top and track pants and black jandals, displayed all those talents. Maybe the women have rubbed off on him, or his own humility and humour have rubbed off on them.
In front of about 35 media people, 13 cameras and 20 microphones, Smith’s pre-final sit-down was a breath of fresh air.
He dared to joke about a NZ Rugby female staffer who quipped with media not to show her pregnant belly on TV. Smith waded in where males should fear to tread, interjecting: “Or if it does appear, just make sure that it says she’s pregnant.”
Far from being a lead balloon, the staffer and the room roared.
With that gender peril engaged, negotiated and passed, Smith never looked back. His rugby philosophy is the same: Always attack.
The former Canterbury and All Black first-five who in 2001 lost his role as head coach of the male All Blacks team, after showing sufficient self-awareness and honesty to talk aloud about self-doubt, is now one day away from a World Cup final at a sold-out Eden Park.
His first involvement with the Black Ferns, he observed, was 25 years ago helping out Daryl Suasua prepare for that year’s big test against England, the then world champions. It was held on the rugby field of an inauspicious venue, the Burnham Military Camp, south of Christchurch.
“Probably the biggest match of the year and we’re playing at a military camp. So you couldn’t have projected your mind to this point where you have 45,000 at Eden Park.”
His return to the team this year after a failed northern tour and crisis in the camp, saw him shake up their style and approach.
At an early training, against a Lincoln academy team, he found himself having to grab one Black Fern by the shorts as she tried to run away from the action and back into a position so indelibly prescribed under the former regimen.
“They were just used to different structures and they were very different structures. Whereas my idea is that if the attack is going on here, then that’s where we want to be. So that was eye-opening to me but the other thing that was eye-opening was how quickly they adjusted and how quickly they saw the logic in what we were trying to do.
“We knew we couldn’t come to this tournament and play the way the other teams are. We knew we had to do something different, so there’s been good buy-in and it’s taken a lot of work to be efficient enough to not run ourselves off our feet but to still play a really attacking game.”
Smith didn’t know what to expect when he took over the head coach’s role. “But I’ve come to love it. I love these girls. I enjoy the whole atmosphere and we have a lot of fun.”
Words like ‘love’ are rarely heard in such media sessions. Smith also spoke of establishing rituals in the weekdays ahead of a test that bring ‘laughter and social cohesion’.
He doesn’t give team talks on match day any more, long put aside from his days of pep talks when running the Crusaders. Instead, a walk-through and a maybe a couple of bullet points on a flip chart. “With these women if they feel good, they feel excited and they’re with people they love, they’ll go out and give it everything.”
After the semifinal win over France, Smith had said the pressure was off New Zealand, as England, unbeaten for 30 matches were the favourites.
Told by a journalist that the England coach, Simon Middleton, had on Thursday morning said the pressure was actually on the Black Ferns, playing at home with such high expectation and a full, intimidating stadium, Smith disarmed the psyching.
“Look I’ve been coaching for 36 years. He’s just a newcomer, trying to put pressure on an old fulla. Nah, look, we’re just really enjoying it. I think we’re in a place that probably not a lot of people thought we would have got to. There was hope, but that French team was outstanding, athletic. So no, we’re just enjoying it. We know what we’ve got to do to win it, but we know we’ve got to be at our very best to get close.”
Middleton had once attended a Smith coaching masterclass when the Kiwi was leading Northampton. “Yeah, I remember Simon. He’s actually a good man, He’s just done a marvellous job. There’s not enough [plaudits] for what he’s done.
“I was part of the All Blacks when we set the record at 18 wins in a row, but to win 30, it’s hard to get your head around. It’s an outstanding job.”
Smith, nicknamed ‘The Professor’ in All Black circles, proceeded to summarise England’s winning tactical plan, conceding the Black Ferns would need to avoid being sucked into the Red Roses’ preferred style of play.
“They’re well coached, they’ve got some of the best players in the world. They’ll have a plan, there’s no doubt about that. It’s pretty apparent how they like to play, they scrum for penalties, they lineout drive for penalties, that leads to another lineout and another penalty and you get caught in that whole pressure cooker.
“That’s hard to avoid, other than don’t give away penalties, don’t give away lineouts.”
But the Black Ferns also needed to be aware that England could change it up, and be lethal with a running game. “They can play an open game. They might have a crack at that, so we’ve got to be prepared.”
The coach finds finals week easier than those ahead of quarter and semifinals. He’s been an assistant All Black coach at both a losing (2007) and winning (2011) Rugby World Cup. “I always find the quarterfinal and semifinal nerve-wracking. The final less so. You’ve done all the work. There’s no need to motivate anyone. So enjoy the week.”
Because there was nothing to plan for the following week, there was the bonus of a day off. Smith went to the movies, to see the Dame Valerie Adams film, on Wednesday.
Asked how those in his hometown of Putaruru would be on the big night, he charmed: “My Mum will be there, she’s 92 in January, she’ll have a cushion up around her face just in case we make a mistake.”
A left-field question: who of the Black Ferns would be most likely to attempt a drop goal if needed in the final?
“Me,” Smith said, before nominating prop Krystle Murray “as number one probably, She’d have a crack. I showed her how to do a backwards, like a back heel, one. She not only did that first time, she turned side on and did that one too.”
His warmth towards the individuals in his side – Ruby Tui would be one of the 10 best athletes he’d coached, Kendra Cocksedge was “just a special human… who would go down in history”, former soccer player Renee Holmes for her kicking skills, Charmaine McMenamin for her remarkable recovery from spinal surgery, were among those who felt the love – spoke of a harmony in this NZ side that possibly exists in other Kiwi teams but is seldom as publicly obvious.
And the rugby inspiration?
Interestingly, he nominated the great, unbeaten All Blacks side captained by Brian Lochore between 1967 and 1969, with Smith’s favourite ever All Black Ian Kirkpatrick, as the model for 15-man rugby.
“Once I got put into this role, that was my aim, to try to be true to that with the women.”
How do the Black Ferns compare?
“They’re doing pretty well, very well. They’re giving it everything. I wouldn’t want to to be the coach who tried to turn them back. They want to go forward and develop this game further.”
Win or lose, this is it for Smith as head coach. “I’ve got other plans.”
He’ll be missed.
* Former Labour leader David Cunliffe apologised in a 2014 speech to Women’s Refuge “for being a man” because of the amount of family violence perpetrated by his gender.