The Bizarre Tale of Greg Smith
It has been nearly a full decade since Greg Smith played first grade rugby league. Smith played only one NRL match but his performance will be one remembered forever and a day by any rugby league fan that was lucky enough to pay witness.
The year was 1999 and the Newcastle Knights were well fancied going into the competition after their ARL Premiership victory in 1997 and their second-placed finish in the 1998 minor premiership. Hopes were high in the Hunter at the turn of the millennium. Andrew Johns was at his peak, the Knights had come of age and a league legend had rolled into town at high noon to take the reins of the team.
After Premiership winning coach Mal Reilly decided to head back to England after the 1998 season, the Knights bought in league visionary Warren Ryan. The Wok had won premierships with the Bulldogs in the mid-eighties and had taken Newtown and Balmain to deciders throughout the decade. His last appointment was with Western Suburbs, where he took the fledgling team to the semi-finals in 1991 and 1992 before retiring to a life in broadcasting after the 1994 season. Four seasons out of the game is a lifetime but that didn’t stop the Knights brass bringing in Ryan: they believed he was a coaching icon that remained at the cutting edge of rugby league thinking.
The Newcastle hierarchy were partially right and a hell of a lot wrong. Ryan had somehow jumped the fine line from visionary to stubborn eccentric throughout his wilderness years. The game changed markedly in the five year period the Wok was in the booth, possibly more than in any other period, and many of the subtleties of modern day rugby league had simply passed Ryan by.
The Wok did have one coaching gig in between the Wests and Newcastle positions, however, and that job was critical to how Greg Smith came to be playing for the Newcastle Knights on that fateful March Sunday back in 1999.
In 1997, at the height of the Super League War, the ARL played host to the annual World Sevens tournament. Bernie Gross, QC and an avid rugby league supporter, bought a team of arena football-quality gridiron players out to represent the USA. The team, known as the Tomahawks, was captained by former Dragons player David Niu and was coached by none other than Warren Ryan.
Though the Tomahawks lost to both Italy and Illawarra and only just snuck home against Japan, Ryan became enchanted by the athleticism of the American players. The Wok was romanced, partly by the athleticism of some of the Tomahawk players but primarily by the notion of blazing a new trail for the rugby league world to pay homage. Ryan still had the desire to forge new territory for rugby league and the trail he intended to blaze was through America.
The experiment had been tried once before, back in 1977, when former Oakland Raider Manfred Moore was recruited by the Newtown Jets. Moore played four games for the Jets that year and was a carnival act before flying home, the brutality of the sport reportedly too much for the running back to handle.
It wasn’t so much the hardness of rugby league that stopped Greg Smith in his tracks. It was more his defensive ineptitude and his flipper-like ball handling, along with the lies that got him to the big dance in the first place, that saw Smith consigned to the footnotes of rugby league history as a one-game wonder.
With Ryan interested in signing an American player to the Knights once he landed the job, the management of Smith pushed hard. Smith and his management claimed that he had spent two seasons playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL. This was later revealed to be a total fabrication by Newcastle journalist Barry Toohey who, upon making some enquiries amongst the Philadelphia pressmen, discovered that Smith had never played pro ball.
Smith, however, was fast, as speedy as a bag-snatcher and combined with his athletic appearance, he had everyone at Newcastle fooled. They didn’t check into Smith’s claims that he had played in the NFL, blindly accepting his word as gospel. While the internet was admittedly in its infancy in 1999 and rugby league had only just entered the era of full-blown professionalism thanks to Super League, Smith’s signing said plenty about the Knights and Warren Ryan in that summer of ‘98/’99: Newcastle were still stuck in amateur hour at the Apollo while Ryan was out-of-touch with modern practices and technology and tended to be more focussed on his legacy than in the long-term fortunes of the Newcastle Knights.
Throughout the pre-season, with very little actual game simulation, Smith’s speed and athletic build blinded the coaching staff. Even after the pre-season trials, Smith’s lack of rugby league competence still hadn’t been exposed. “He went alright in the trials” Ryan said in 2007, with all the vagueness of someone who probably never saw a minute of Smith throughout those practice matches.
Newcastle started the season with a big 41-18 win over Manly before going down to Parramatta 18-8 in round two. The Knights were, however, hurting through injury, particularly in the three-quarter line with Darren Albert, Adam MacDougall and Matt Gidley all unavailable for selection in week three. After the loss to Parramatta, in which winger Lenny Beckett had a rough night out, Ryan said that “I’ll be having a look at the tapes and [will] have a real good look at the reserve grade. Greg Smith went very well and so did winger Shane Laloata and centre Timana Tahu.”
Ryan opted to go with “former NFL star” Greg Smith to make his NRL debut. Timana Tahu, who would go on to become a dual international and play eleven Origin matches for New South Wales, was left in reserve grade and would not make his first grade debut until round twelve that season.
The Knights would take on Canterbury in round three in what was set to be a monster clash at the newly opened Stadium Australia after Newcastle were eliminated by the Bulldogs in extra-time in the first of the 1998 preliminary finals. 26,341 punters showed up on a delightfully sunny March Sunday to watch the two powerhouse teams clash.
Newcastle were led by Andrew Johns with brother Matthew in the six jersey, Tony Butterfield with the ‘c’ next to his name and future Origin players Mark “Boozy” Hughes and Jason Moodie in the backline. The Bulldogs forward pack was big and brutal with Darren Britt, Steve Price and Darren Smith all lining up. Also singing in the blue and white were Ricky Stuart and Bradley Clyde, the Raiders stalwarts playing their third game for the Bulldogs since being cut by Canberra due to salary cap constraints. The debutant winger for Newcastle, Greg Smith, was largely overlooked in the hype.
Newcastle exploded from the blocks and led 18-4 at the break and extended that lead gap to 24-4 shortly after half-time. Andrew Johns was tearing the Bulldogs apart, scoring a try himself and having a hand in the other three. The Knights were set for a big road victory against a highly fancied premiership contender.
And then came Greg Smith, who turned in possibly the worst five minutes in rugby league history. It all started with a bomb to his wing. Smith looked on clueless. The Bulldogs ran in two further tries on Smith’s wing in the next few minutes with the Sydney Morning Herald stating that “dreadful is a word that struggles to convey Smith’s ineptitude”. His ball handling was that of a blind four-year old girl born without arms. His defence was “dreadful”, in the words of Warren Ryan. His ability under the bomb was laughable. Smith displayed the same kind of awkwardness exhibited when you walk into a swinger’s party only to see your best friend and his wife enjoying the festivities with two other men, a woman and a ball-gag. Or so I would imagine, based on the tales of a Richmond publican who is familiar with all kinds of scenes and regaled the bar with weird and amusing tales last Wednesday evening.
The Bulldogs peppered Smith for the remainder of the half and secured a 28-26 victory. Even Steven Hughes scored a try.
In the days following the match, the vinegar was put on Smith. The experiment was rated a spectacular failure by all and sundry. Smith’s deception was soon revealed. Ryan’s legacy was forever stained with the bizarre tale of Greg Smith.
As for Smith, he never played another NRL game again. To save further
public humiliation, Newcastle kept him on the books until mid-season at which point they banished him. He went on to play a season of Metropolitan Cup with Wests before returning to the United States to play in the AMNRL.
No NRL team has since fielded an American, be it a former NFL player or a con artist masquerading as one.
The tale of Greg Smith certainly is a bizarre one and one of the more interesting footnotes of modern day rugby league. It is more than just a tale of a lying and inept American who dreamed of playing big time sports or the gullible fools who bought his story. It was a tale about the opportunity of rugby league, of the progress in professionalism that can be made in a decade, of changing times, of legacies and the inherent dangers associated with those who try to manufacture them, of how the strangest little things can sometimes be unforgettable.
Rugby league: It is one hell of a game, one grand way to spend your winters.
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