Gordon Smith is probably an unlikely ‘favorite player’, but he ranks highly on my list of overseas’ stars who impressed me when I was a rugby league journalist with the Brisbane ‘Telegraph’, and then ‘The Courier-Mail’ in the 1980s.
Like many top New Zealand players, Smith hails from the West Coast of the South Island, a real rugby league stronghold in a rugby union mad country.
An old gold rush and coal mining area, of high rainfall, the West Coast hosted its first league match on June 3, 1915 when the Canterbury Province played West Coast at Victoria Park, Greymouth.
Before Smith, there were the likes of Jock Butterfield, Ces Mountford and George Menzies who represented New Zealand from the West Coast. In fact, there have been 49 Kiwis produced in the region.
I first saw Smith play for the Mountford coached Kiwis in a Test at Lang Park in 1982. I liked the way he set-up his support players. He was always scheming, and reminded me some of the skilful British halfbacks I had seen in the 1960s and ’70s.
Hull Kingston Rovers thought the same way, because they signed him at the end of the 1982 southern hemisphere season, and he had six seasons there, playing alongside the likes of fellow Kiwis, Mark Broadhurst and Gary Prohm; Australian, Gavin Miller; Scotsman, George Fairbairn and prominent English players, Phil Hogan, David Watkinson and Len Casey. His coach for much of that time was Roger Millward MBE, one of the greatest of British halfbacks.
Smith, who copped plenty of punishment on the field, (have a look at his nose) played five eighth and Auckland’s Shane Varley was halfback in a 1983 Test I covered at Lang Park, in former Brisbane Norths’ coach, Graham Lowe’s first season in charge of the Kiwis. New Zealand won that Test 19-12.
By the time the next Trans-Tasman series was played in 1985, Clayton Friend and Olsen Filipaina were the Kiwi halves. Gordon Smith played 15 Tests between 1979 and ’83.
Footnote: I covered one match at Wingham Park, Greymouth – in May, 1988 when Queensland Residents, coached by former Test forward, Greg Platz, narrowly beat West Coast in heavy rain.
The next day, Greymouth experienced major flooding, with water coming into the Union Hotel, where we had been drinking. By then, the Qld team was safely back in Christchurch, where it was cold, but dry.
This year, the West Coast could not stage a senior competition, although the juniors still boast plenty of teams. The downturn in the mining and forestry industries has seen able bodied men leave the West Coast.
Photo: Gordon Smith