January 16 2021
One-test Kiwis fullback Tony Smith never lost his love of sport despite missing out on a rugby league test jersey and team photograph and being banned from playing rugby union for life.
The retired North Canterbury farmer died last Monday, aged 81, after a short illness.
Smith – aided by his late wife Chris – devoted himself to sport and community affairs in the Waiau district despite being refused reinstatement to rugby union after a short, successful league career.
He played his one and only test for the Kiwis in 1962, kicking a goal in a record 19-0 win over Great Britain at Auckland’s Carlaw Park. But Smith suffered a shoulder injury and missed selection for the second Test.
“Because the players were allowed to keep their jerseys only at the second Test, when the team photo was also taken, Tony missed out on both,’’ New Zealand Rugby League historian John Coffey said.
The Kiwis test proved his last game of rugby league in New Zealand. He married in 1963 and went to farm at Waiau, where the local rugby club’s case to have him reinstated was flatly refused by higher authorities.
Back then, any player deemed to have been a rugby professional was automatically denied a rugby union return.
Smith’s case was in a different league, however, to most code switchers. Some former union players had made a handsome living from playing for big English league clubs – ex-All Black and Empire Games relay bronze medallist Peter Henderson funded a Waikato farm from his Huddersfield tenure.
Smith, however, played domestically and once told a Press reporter that his league expenses scarcely covered his petrol costs to Christchurch from Waikari.
Waiau, where he moved at the age of 23, was 120km from the nearest rugby league competition in Christchurch – too far to drive to practices and games for a busy young farmer.
Former Linwood and Canterbury forward John Flanagan said Smith decided to put a halt to his league career, despite having a potentially long representative tenure ahead of him in an era when the Kiwis won the Courtney Goodwill Trophy as the world’s leading league nation.
“We were at his wedding on May 3, 1963 on the day they announced the Kiwis team to tour Australia. If he had still been playing league, he would have gone on that tour for sure,” Flanagan said.
“In his last two years with Linwood, he was back working on a farm at Waikari, and he used to come in for training on Thursday, play the game and stay over, when he needed to, with the owners of His Lordship’s Hotel, free of charge.
“But when he moved to Waiau, he decided it was too far to drive in.”
Flanagan felt Smith’s rugby union exclusion was “a big loss for them” because his friend would have been a major asset to the 15-man code in Canterbury Country.
“The only rugby he played afterwards was the [Waiau club’s] Married v Singles game.”
Coffey said: “Banned from the only sport played in his area, Tony nevertheless was the lifeblood of the local rugby union club for the next few decades. He could not play again but that did not stop him from coaching junior teams and doing more than anyone to keep the club going, off the field.
“He was held in high regard by his former Linwood and Canterbury team-mates and by those in north Canterbury who knew of his selfless work for a sport which had blacklisted him.”
Smith’s son, Peter, said his father “never showed any bitterness” to rugby union officialdom and simply got on with living a long and happy life.
That included coaching junior rugby teams in Waiau, and a long spell playing and coaching tennis, which became his main sporting outlet.
Anthony Andrew Smith was born in 1939, and grew up in the Waikari district where he was a promising rugby union player, who became a Hurunui representative.
Flanagan said Smith switched to league after being spotted playing union by Neville Atkinson, a Linwood stalwart then living in Waikari.
Aged 19, he was invited to move to Christchurch, where he lived in a boarding house in Stanmore Road, and worked as a drainlayer’s assistant for Linwood captain Bob Pounsford.
“Tony made an impact the first game he played for us,” Flanagan said. “Some of the Papanui guys said, ‘where did he come from’?’’
Smith proved a quick learner in his new code. He helped Linwood share the Canterbury title with Papanui in 1960 and become outright champions the following year.
“He was a reliable last line of defence, a great handler of the ball and an outstanding goalkicker,” said Flanagan, who likened Smith’s skills to those of his Linwood and Canterbury rugby union contemporary Fergie McCormick.
“Pat White – who became a Kiwi with his brother, Jim – was our goalkicker, but he missed a couple of conversions in a game. Tony took over and landed them from everywhere, and kept the job.”
Smith was the top points scorer in the Canterbury competition for two years running.
He once broke in a brand-new pair of boots by kicking nine goals from 11 attempts against Marist – eight from eight in the second half.
“He was a great tackler, and good on attack, as well. He had very strong hips, from working on the farm since he left school,’’ Flanagan said.
Smith made firm friendships with his Linwood teammates, often taking them home to his parents’ Waikari farm for a weekend of hunting and socialising.
“We couldn’t drink at [Waikari’s] Star and Garter because the publican, who must have been on the rugby union, wouldn’t serve us because were only 19 at the time, yet he used to serve Tony when he was playing [rugby] for Waikari,’’ Flanagan said. Undeterred, the Linwood lads switched their custom to the Great Northern Hotel “down the road.’’
After standing out for Linwood, Smith was selected for Canterbury and became a South Island representative in 1960 – only his second season in league – and again in 1962.
He starred in Canterbury’s first Northern Union Cup home victory over Auckland in 1962, kicking four goals in a 16-13 win over an Auckland team featuring 12 Kiwis.
That display helped Smith earn a Kiwis call up for the first test against Great Britain at Carlaw Park. He slotted a goal before suffering an injury, which curtailed his 1962 season.
“He never played rugby league in New Zealand again,” Flanagan said. “But he did play for us when we had an overseas tour to Sydney, where we went to the 1962 grand final between St George and Wests, and then had games against Manly-Waringah, a selection picked from four Wollongong clubs, and the Mittagong District.”
Tim Bond, a standoff half who played alongside Smith for Canterbury, the South Island and the Kiwis, said the fullback deserved a Kiwis jersey and was ” a real, thorough team man”.
“He was the hardest fullback I ever struck. He knocked you backwards, and you always felt it. If you got past Tony Smith, you were lucky. He was such a reliable player; he was really a sportsman who did his best every game. He was really friendly with everyone, a real good fella.”
After rugby league, Smith turned his attention to farming, retiring when he was close to 70 and passing on a property once owned by wife Chris’ family, to his second son, Gary.
Peter Smith said his father and mother were actively involved in the Waiau community, with tennis proving a particular passion for Tony, who was still coaching kids at the Waiau club until he became ill.
“He loved all sports – he liked rugby, and rugby league,” Peter said. “He couldn’t wait for the NRL season to start.”
Anthony Andrew Smith. Born: September 15, 1939. Died: January 11, 2021. Pre-deceased by wife Christine. Survived by sons Gary, Paul and Peter. – Tony Smith (Stuff sports reporter).