A tribute to coaching icon Wayne Smith

GettyImages 1440920255

Wayne Smith announced the Women’s Rugby World Cup would be his last coaching job. However, rumours already abound at the Waihi Rugby Club, not far from Smith’s residence, that he’ll be present at pre-season training. Quarts of lemonade, and that ‘really promising’ centre should be enough Koha for a bloke that struggles to say no.

Wayne Smith affectionately nicknamed ‘The Professor,’ has dedicated his life to mastering rugby. An All Blacks first-five from 1980 to 1985, on November 12 he became the first man to win both the male and female World Cup as a coach.  

As a player, selector and coach Wayne Smith was involved in 174 All Black Tests of which he won 143, including the World Cup finals in 2011 and 2015.

That means between his debut as a player in 1980 and his retirement as a coach in October 2017, he was involved in almost a third of all All Blacks Test victories. The All Blacks won 437 Tests from 1903 to 2017.

Additionally, he was a resource coach for the Black Ferns in 1997 who beat World Champions England (67-0) and Australia (40-0). He was a mentor to many important female rugby pioneers.

In 2022 Smith was appointed Black Ferns Director of Rugby after the least successful tour in Black Ferns history.

On November 12 the Black Ferns beat England 34-31 in the World Cup final at Eden Park after trailing 0-14 in as many minutes. The game was played in front of a world record crowd for a women’s rugby international of 42,579 spectators.

There were only 159 days between the Black Ferns unconvincing 23-10 win against Australia in Tauranga on June 6 and the biggest moment in women’s rugby history.

The Black Ferns were a perfect 12-0 under Smith, stopping England’s world record streak of 30 wins on the trot.

Putāruru Roots

Wayne Smith was born in Putāruru, a small town in the South Waikato District, on April 19, 1957. Putāruru's economy is based on farming, forestry, bottled water and timber production. It’s a humble place where working class values are respected. When Smith was asked on Thursday what would be happening in Putāruru on World Cup final night he responded.

“My mum will be there…She’s going to be 92 in January, she’ll have a cushion up around her face just in case we make a mistake.”

Smith attended Putāruru College between 1970 and 1974 where he was a member of the First XV, who in those days beat Hamilton Boys’ High School.

In a sporting context there is something in the water in Putāruru. Fellow World Cup winning All Black Grant Fox was from there as are Black Ferns Honey Hireme-Smiler and pioneer Sue Garden-Bachop, the late wife of All Black Stephen Bachop and mother of two Māori All Blacks, Jackson, and Connor. 

Nigel Hotham is another who counts Putāruru as home. Hotham has won more National Secondary Schools Rugby sevens and First XV titles than anyone. For two decades he’s been the brainchild and inspiration behind the world-leading Hamilton Boys’ High School rugby program. He’s a close mate of Smithy. His stepdaughter Jazmin Hotham-Felix is in the Black Ferns Sevens.

Playing Career

Smith graduated from the University of Waikato with a Bachelor of Social Sciences in 1979 and relocated to Christchurch.

He made his first-class debut for Canterbury out of the Belfast club in the same year at first-five. He arrived as Canterbury were seeking a long-term replacement for All Black Doug Bruce who made 106 appearances for the province.

Smith showed quick promise and was selected (All Black 806) for the 1980 tour of Australia. He played six games, including the first Test which was lost 9-13. He was injured and didn’t feature on the tour again.

Persistent injuries would be an issue for the slightly built Smith. Between 1982 and 1985 he’d only feature in 40 of the 83 games played by Canterbury.

On September 18, 1982, at Athletic Park, Canterbury beat Wellington 16-12 to win the Ranfurly Shield. Smith snatched a dramatic intercept close to fulltime to win the game for the visitors.

Canterbury would defend the ‘Log of Wood’ a team-record 25 times in a golden era and Smith would play 19 of those games. In 1983 Canterbury won the NPC for the first time.

Robbie Deans, Craig Green, Victor Simpson, Warwick Taylor, Jock Hobbs, Albert Anderson, Murray Davie and John Mills became All Blacks from the Shield era. John Ashworth (1977) and Kieran Keane (1979) were already All Blacks while Andy Earl (1986) and Bruce Deans (1987) became All Blacks shortly afterwards. Tony Thorpe was an unused All Blacks reserve against France in 1986.

His allblacks.com profile describes Smith as “a sharp runner with a good tactical brain” and “developed a powerful kicking game and had a special talent for targeting defences with accurate up and unders or "bombs."

Smith played in the second and third Test wins of the 4-0 sweep of the 1983 British and Irish Lions and was particularly strong in four victories against France in 1984 and England in 1985.

His last first-class game was in 1989. He played 118 times and scored 147 points (27 tries, 3 conversions, 1 penalty, 10 drop goals).

Smith represented the New Zealand Sevens from 1984 to 1986 and coached the National side in 1991 and 1992.

A Worldly Man

Analytical, engaging, and restless, Smith kept busy after he stopped playing in New Zealand. He was a qualified schoolteacher and had two spells coaching in Italy, with ASD Rugby Casale (1986-88) and Benetton Treviso (1992-94). He worked for Canterbury Clothing, was CEO of Hawke’s Bay rugby and prominent in Canterbury administration.

Widely read, he’s been married to his similarly erudite and compassionate wife Trish for more than four decades. The couple have twin boys, Nick, and Joshua. Joshua lives with cerebral palsy and is finishing his master's thesis. Nick is an academic of repute.

Mates are important to Smith. He formed a formidable partnership with 1987 World Cup winning All Black Warwick Taylor in his playing days with Canterbury. In the 1990s’ he met Steve Hansen and Sir Graham Henry for the first time.

Super Rugby

Professional rugby started in New Zealand in 1996 and Super Rugby was the measure of success for regions, and the new production line for All Blacks.

The Crusaders based in Christchurch were the worst performing team in the inaugural season, the only New Zealand side to have ever finished last.  

Smith was appointed Crusaders coach in 1997. In 1998 and 1999 the Crusaders won the Super title enroute to becoming the most dominant franchise in the competition.

Uniquely in 1998 the Crusaders lost three of their first four matches and then won six in a row to earn their place in the final against the imperious Blues at Eden Park. From a 13-3 deficit the Crusaders roared back to win. Lock Norm Maxwell, the rogue from Rawene, would stride out for a try and become an All Black. Wing James Kerr, a prodigy from Gisborne, scored a try with the last play. Smith never looked sharper wearing his ‘Boys of Summer’ Wayfarers.

In 1999 the Crusaders gate-crashed ‘the Party at Tony Brown's House.’ They beat the Highlanders 24-19 at Carisbrook in Dunedin. The Afato So'oalo try! The diminutive winger stood up one of the most feared tacklers in the game, Brain ‘Chiropractor’ Lima. Again, the Crusaders started slowly but built momentum by winning nine consecutive matches, including a semi-final in Brisbane against the Reds.

Smith joined the Chiefs, who’d never won the title, in 2012. He coached alongside present Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. In two glorious seasons the Chiefs went 14-4 each year and beat the Sharks (37-6) and Brumbies (27-22) in home finals.

The Chiefs were half a million in the red at the end of 2011. Smith rebuilt the culture. ‘Chiefs Mana’ was the brainchild of the Professor.  

Jeremy Hapeta, a former Manawatu captain, analysed the Chiefs as part of his Massey University PhD thesis examining how players perform at their peak. He discovered the “modern player is criticised for being a bit self-centred, but the Chiefs seem to have bought into something a lot bigger than themselves.”

Hapeta shared further findings from his research in the New Zealand Herald in 2014.

Smith told me: "Fundamentally, we wanted good buggers. We wanted more than just a cultural change - essentially creating a champion team is a spiritual act. Not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely ours.

"We sought an identity and have ended up honouring it. Character was definitely important when selecting the team. We play for our people and our region, which we've travelled over.”

Building a culture of hard work and inclusiveness included riding bikes to training before the 2012 playoffs, when Hamilton clubs and schools came to the rescue after the Chiefs' ground became swampy. The following season they re-traced a Tainui voyage with team building in Waihi.

Attack and defence patterns were based around Māori themes, unusual at the time but sensible given most of the players were Māori. Ironically Smith has no Māori blood at all. His Iwi is the Scottish Ross clan.

Think Outside the Box

A dōjō is a hall or place for immersive learning or meditation. This is traditionally in the field of martial arts, but has been seen increasingly in other fields, such as meditation and software development. The powerful Japanese concept has been around for thousands of years and was introduced by Smith to the Crusaders to great acclaim. Under Smith the Black Ferns have embraced a dōjō which has assisted in wrestling techniques, building physical strength and introspective reflection.

Perhaps the most far-out character in the life of Wayne Smith is George Serrallach, a late Spanish Biotechnology and Biomechanics professor in Palmerston North with a background in football. 

In 1996 Smith met Serrallach at a Sports conference in Melbourne. Serrallach had devised a computer system that came to be known as SAM (Statistic Analysis Method). The program devised a specific language, breaking down 2000 movements in the game of football. Attempts to sell the software to football clubs for use of analysis were fruitless.

With Sports Psychologist David Hadfield, Smith befriended Serrallach and together they helped develop the first computer software analysis system for rugby.

“None of us knew much about computers. Our roles were to identify tasks within the game that needed to be coded then weighted to make sense of team performance,” Smith recalled.

“Ultimately, we came up with around two thousand tasks as George was obsessed by detail. The more information, the better the analysis. For example, did a pass come from the left or right of a receiver? Was it caught on the chest or fumbled. If fumbled, did it go forwards or backwards? You can see how, mathematically, this multiplies.”

In 1999 a 43kg computer named ‘Battlestar’ pioneered an accurate visual record of a rugby player’s performance. A click on a name would illustrate all actions in a game, like tackles and carries, accompanied with video of those actions. From this was born the language of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

In the mid-2000’s Verusco Technologies, a sporting analysis company in Palmerston North employed 55 staff and enjoyed annual turnover of $3 million analysing multiple codes; most critically New Zealand Rugby, including the All Blacks until the end of 2011 when they won the World Cup.

Video analysis and professional rugby are inseparable today.

World Conquering All Blacks

Wayne Smith was controversially dumped as All Blacks coach in 2001 after expressing self-doubt publicly. In terms of trophies his first tenure wasn’t successful, but if ever there was a game that spoke of the possibilities of rugby it was the Test between the All Blacks and Wallabies at the Olympic Stadium in 2000. 

In front of a world record crowd of 109,874, the All Blacks were up 24-0 after six minutes against the defending World Champions. Australia rallied and led 35-34 with a minute left. Jonah Lomu would break Aussie hearts with a last minute try but classy Wallabies captain John Eales said immediately afterwards, and still maintains, that was the best game of rugby he ever played.

Smith was an assistant coach of the All Blacks from 2004 to 2011 and again from 2015 to 2017. With Graham Henry and Steven Hansen alongside, the All Blacks would set standards of excellence never achieved in rugby.

Between 2004 and 2011 the All Blacks won 88 of 103 Test matches. Except for two defeats to France the All Blacks were 49-0 against Northern Hemisphere opposition and never surrendered the Bledisloe Cup to Australia.

On October 23, 2011, the All Blacks beat France 8-7 at Eden Park to win the World Cup for the first time in 24 years. The last 20 minutes camped on defence were excruciating.

“We decided by 2011 that getting off the ground was one of our most important KPIs. Guys who’d made a tackle, been a ball carrier, needed to be quickly off the ground and back into the game,” Smith said

“When we won the World Cup in 2011, we were typically 40% quick off the ground that is back to our feet in under three seconds. In the final you can hear Andy Ellis yelling the whole time ‘get back to your feet, get back to your feet.’ We were 64% off the ground which was the best we’d ever seen and miles better than anyone else. Now you’d use 80% as a yardstick. That’s how data can change the game.”

The All Blacks became the first team to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup in 2015 with a glorious victory over Australia at Twickenham. Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conard Smith are on record as saying Wayne Smith is the best coach they ever had. In 2016 the All Blacks would accomplish a world record 18 consecutive Test victories by a Tier 1 nation.

Smith ventured to Japan in 2018 and guided the Kobelco Kobe Steelers to two Japanese Top Leauge titles. They lost once in 27 games.


Laurie O’Reilly and Women’s Rugby

Laurie O’Reilly was a prominent rugby coach and lawyer from Christchurch who founded the New Zealand women’s rugby team, later to become the Black Ferns, in 1989.

“My coaching mentor was Laurie O’ Reilly. I first met him in 1979 when I moved to Christchurch as a young fella. He answered the door wearing a kaftan which I’d never seen before coming from Putāruru,” Smith recalled.

“I was pretty insular at that time, and he was interesting, engaging and different from the rugby stereotype. He must have seen something in me because he encouraged me to get into coaching. He was hugely important in a lot of young people’s lives.”

Smith was an invaluable peripheral figure in the pioneering days of New Zealand women’s rugby running coaching clinics in Canterbury from 1988 to 1991 and providing occasional advice to anyone who wanted it. Helen Littleworth was captain of the Black Ferns at the first World Cup in 1991 and remarked:

“Wayne Smith has an extraordinary ability to believe in you. He obviously has an astute understanding of technique and talent, but it didn’t matter if you were big, short, fat or fast he would encourage you to execute a skill.”

In 1997 Smith was technical advisor of the Black Ferns for two Tests. They beat Australia 40-0 and World Champions England 67-0, a record score that still stands today. Smith followed the team closely despite his busy schedule with the All Blacks.

He’s especially fond of Selica Winiata. The diminutive fullback scored 39 tries in 40 Tests for the Black Ferns. She scored twice in the 2017 World Cup final win against England.

“Women kick less which is a major benefit for me. It’s not that women are limited in their ability to kick, Kendra Cocksedge and Chelsea Semple are tactically astute and skilled in this regard, but they tend to play more classically with an emphasis on moving the ball and playing positively. Selica Winiata is the epitome of this. What a player,” Smith said.

In April 2022, Smith was appointed Black Ferns Director of Rugby under tough circumstances. Combining years of education, he developed a game plan and spirit, with his old mate Ted, that was smart, fun, deeply rooted in Tikanga, love, and unbeatable. 

An unlikely and breakneck style of rugby, which even involved jokes about prop Krystal Murray kicking winning drop goals (not appreciated by all media) yielded 12 consecutive wins and a sixth World Cup title. 

With 15 Tests debutants in 159 days, New Zealand became the first hosts to win the World Cup. Smith called it, “the most phenomenal achievement of my career.”

The Personal Touch

The “Professor” is the rarest combination of high IQ and EQ. A master tactician with an obsessive work ethic he builds deep relationships with his players but can make contentious calls when required. Veteran Black Ferns, Eloise Blackwell, Les Elder, and Chelsea Semple weren’t selected for the World Cup, a surprise to many. 

In 2011 the All Blacks preferred Richard Kahui to Hosea Gear at the World Cup. Kahui was a centre swapped to the wing ahead of the explosive Gear. The theory was that the All Blacks needed a more complete defensive player rather than another bruising runner. The plan worked.

As a coach and human, Smith is cut from the same cloth as Fred Allen, Arthur Lydiard and John Wooden.

"I was a pretty brash young coach at times, and I was really driven to be successful,” Smith said.

“You learn every step of the way. I was really fortunate in my early All Black coaching career to have a couple of guys who were wise and taught a young brash coach to slow down and find a bit of wisdom."

Ben Engels was a promising halfback in the Sacred Heart College First XV with All Black Hoskins Sotutu. Unfortunately, injury derailed his footy, but he remains involved in sport as a groundskeeper in Brisbane.

In 2018 Smith was forced to slow down battling prostate cancer. At the same time Engels was struggling.

“The morning after my third ACL reconstruction in a Hamilton Hospital I vaguely overheard a conversation across the corridor with names like Carter, Nonu and Ted being thrown around. I said to my Mum beside me, ‘that sounds like Wayne Smith,”’ Engels recalled.

“Sure, enough later that day I was practising my walking with the physio at the same time Smithy was stretching his legs in the hallway. We both locked eyes, smiled and chatted.

“He complimented me on my Aaron Cruden shirt and wished me a successful recovery. An easy conversation about myself for ten minutes. I didn’t even know he had cancer. That’s a memory I’ll cherish forever. From one Putāruru man to another, thank you Smithy.”


View all