From The Old Club: The History of the Christchurch Football Club 1863 -2013. Written by Tony Murdoch
For over 40 years Christchurch senior teams used a very simple move - blindside winger, outside the first 5/8, either to set up a ruck, break the line or create an overlap. The name of this move was simplicity in itself, ‘Smith one’ and in this case the capital letter is crucial because this particular move was named after Ross Smith, one of the club’s most distinguished and skilful backs and a try scoring machine few have ever equalled let alone surpassed. For the author writing about Ross Smith has created some pains of nostalgia, for in a battered suitcase, recently recovered, was a photograph of the 1946 Christchurch Junior team featuring among others Peter Murdoch (his father), Keith Torrance and Alan Robilliard. Nestled in the second row is a strong and youthful Ross Smith. Many of the men around have served in World War II and are soon to embark on marriage and raising families, many with the view that their job was to make a better New Zealand and this they accomplished. My father only ever said one thing about the young lad from Ashburton… “He really was a lot better than any of us” and in this my dad was entirely correct.
Interviewing Ross Smith’s contemporaries is interesting because they all attest to his wonderful skills and his knowledge of the game but then there is a pause as they ruminate on the fact that Ross only played one game for the All Blacks, the first test against Australia in 1955. They invariably pause and then say in whispered tones, as if not to betray their old friend, “of course he was injured and decided to play… they never picked him again.” It is as though the mistake he made in playing was a mirror of life and in some ways this is an indelibly painful memory. A great rugby player, loyal and capable yet somehow flawed; loved and admired but in the final analysis it was something of a mystery as to why a man of his talents somehow did not do these talents full justice.
Ross Smith joined the Christchurch Club at the insistence of Alan Robilliard, his uncle. Born in Ashburton he attended Timaru Boys High School before leaving his home town in 1946. Within two seasons he had gained promotion to the seniors and was elected for Canterbury B, ironically against Ashburton County, against whom he scored the first of his 102 first class tries. In 1949 he was promoted to the A’s and from then until his retirement in 1960 he was a regular selection on the left wing. Like Bob Duff, Tiny Hill and John Hotop he was part of a great Canterbury Ranfurly shield era and it was a team that embraced back play. As a result Smith, along with Maurie Dixon and Alan Elsom, had plenty of ball but his work on the field was not simply about attack.
Smith was quick but not a genuine speedster in the way that George Hart and Bruce McPhail were, but he was alert to every opportunity and used his intelligence to anticipate play. In the days when wings threw the ball into lineouts he was notable for his accuracy. He was a skilled and courageous defender, quickly able to shut down opposition moves. Perhaps the most notable instance of this ability was in 1959 when Canterbury defeated the British Lions. Early in the second half Ken Scotland, the Lions fullback, entered the attack and was stopped abruptly by a Smith crash tackle. Such was the ferocity of this effort that Scotland left the field and Canterbury went on to a famous victory.
His only test was against Australia in 1955 and sadly it was not a success. He played on the right wing, not his favoured position, and perhaps against advice he played with an injured knee. His lack of mobility was exposed when his opposite ran around him to score. He was not to get another chance and although Tiny Hill used all his persuasive powers to get him into the 1959 team against the Lions it was not be. Just why he was not given more opportunities is hard to fathom because on scoring ability alone he was a class act.
In the period 1950 to 1956 Ron Jarden was the first choice left winger and Smith was always going to have to bide his time. However, when Jarden retired the selectors appeared to favour Pat Walsh, a clever player but not a specialist winger and certainly no scoring machine. At a time when Ross Smith was at his peak Walsh was given the left winger berth when much of his playing career had been in the mid-field.
In 1969 he took over coaching the Christchurch Seniors. His first squad was a mixture of youngsters and experienced players and this blend combined to win championship in 1970 and 1971. Much of the same team went on to win four titles in the next five years. Jerry Rowberry said that, “even though he was a wing, as a coach he had a superb understanding of the techniques of forward play and was very astute at analysing opposition teams.” Interestingly in his first season he rostered his reserves, no matter who the opposition was, and so his key players were forced to miss vital fixtures because it their turn to stand down. He did this in the belief that a team was only as good as its reserves and he wanted to make sure everyone had the chance to play alongside each other.
In addition to his coaching with Christchurch he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cantabrians’ Rugby Club, playing many games against schools after he finished playing club rugby. Alan Direen, a promising player at Hillmorton High School recalls being pulled aside by Smith and told in no uncertain terms that when he was passed the ball, “…it HAD to be end on end not tumbling all over the bloody place.”
Seasons for CFC: 1946 - 1962 (103 tries)Matches For Canterbury: 134 (92 tries)Matches For South Island: 2Other: 16Matches For New Zealand: 1 test