Old-school grunt still has a place in rugby's modern era

· Super Rugby - AU
by Jim Tucker

Ryan Smith was on the tools at 6.30am last year fixing air conditioning units before scooting to training to press for a lock spot at the Queensland Reds.

His was the double life that all rugby players lived in the amateur era when squeezing 25 hours from every day to fit in training, making a living and home life. 

You want to see ambition like that rewarded which is why Smith’s selection is so upbeat at lock against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday night. 

His call-up, after three outings off the bench, might have been helped by fixing air conditioners on the side for Athletic Performance Manager Damian Marsh and teammate Bryce Hegarty. 

“That actually has a big part to do with it...especially because I might have some problems with mine down the track,” Reds coach Brad Thorn said in jest. 

“Ryan is just a great story coming through as that amateur/semi-professional working his trade through COVID last year. Nothing has been given to him. 

“He’s got a trade, he’s had his 5am days getting up to work, he’s worked hard for three or four years, he’s got the ute and his dog. 

“He’s hungry and those type of guys don’t take positions for granted.” 

There’s plenty of what Thorn likes to the popular Smith. Anyone throwing the right workrate, physicality and toughness at his rugby will cop a break. 

Those work-hard, play-hard stories are everywhere in Australian rugby history. 

Smith will wear the maroon Queensland No.4 jersey that Rod McCall once donned. The 1991 World Cup-winning lock was nicknamed “Sergeant Slaughter” because he first came into the Queensland side as a policeman in the mid-1980s. 

Another former Queensland lock, David Williams, was a turf farmer. Bledisloe-Cup winning pylon Bill Campbell was a doctor.   

Former Queensland hooker David Nucifora sold used cars on his dad Vince’s lot, wide tie and all.

Renowned NSW prop Jon White had the iron grip of the farm-toughened grazier he was in the 1950s and ‘60s when playing for the Wallabies.  

Coalminer Steve Merrick was a classic story from the last months of amateurism in 1995. He was picked for two Tests at halfback against the All Blacks in 1995 and promptly returned to life in Singleton.  

Of course, you had flightier backs like former Wallaby fullback Greg Martin, who once worked in a funeral parlour and had his own mowing business with the slogan “You sit on your arse, we’ll cut your grass.” 

More recently, hookers Brandon Paenga-Amosa (Reds) and Folau Faingaa (Brumbies) have been driven to make the most of their rugby breaks after jobs as garbage collectors.  

You can wax on about all that rugby academies teach you but Smith has got as much from his real world journey with different traits. 

He was never the flashy schoolboy star. From Drew Mitchell’s old school at St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, he forged a start at the humblest level in Colts III at Brothers. He has been clawing his way up the ladder ever since. 

He’s more worldly at 24 than callow kids just out of the schoolboy ranks and has a fizz that adds energy to the whole Reds squad. 

Packmate Angus Scott-Young has done best in upgrading his nickname from boring “Smithy” to “BoJack” because he has a long head like the horse in the lead role of the animated adult comedy series. 

“Yeah, ‘Youngy’ came up with that one. A bit of a long head so I’ve got to cop it,” Smith said with a laugh. 

He does believe the 6.30am starts as a refrigeration mechanic have toughened him mentally. 

“Massively. You kind of appreciate how fortunate you are because these opportunities to play rugby full-time are hard to come by,” Smith said. 

“It gives you a balanced view on life too because you know what it is to work 40-50 hours a week when you don’t get the chance to look after your body with the best possible nutrition and recovery between every training session.” 

Thorn hasn’t picked the 118kg lock because he recovers well. Smith’s a goer, a willing ball-carrier and just plays hard. 

His mentality fits Thorn’s driven ways to make sure the 4-0 Reds sustain the rage and win a trophy for the first time in a decade. 

“We’re sort of happy with our finishes but it’s not up to our standard...we want to put teams to the sword, blow them away on the scoreboard, not let them be within 10 points,” Smith said. 

Now that’s an old-school Queensland-NSW mentality that never grows old.