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Paul Smith played his junior footy with the very successful Ashcroft High Team. He joined the Penrith Panthers in 1985 and played in the 1990 Grand Final and was in the Premiership winning side of 1991.  Paul played with the Panthers until 1993 and switched to the Western Suburbs Magpies in 1994 where he matched the most tries by a club player in a season.  Paul played with the Magpies until 1997.

Heroes of Yesterday, Interview 36 – 5 July 2018 – Paul Smith

Where did you grow up?

Ashcroft

What was your first football experience?

I actually got thrown in there because I was supposedly a Mummies boy.  The doctors said I needed to go and play a physical sport.  This is when I was six years old.  Back in those days I was a state runner, I was third in the state, something like that. 

As a child what was your most memorable experience of Rugby League?

The team above us at Green Valley had Tony Cosatto and Tony Rowles, they won the Coca-Cola knockout, which was the club football pinnacle back then.  They were just brilliant

Did you collect Footy Cards as a kid?

Yes, I loved them, had cards of Paul Merlo, Tony Trudgett, Rod Reddy, all of those blokes. 

Who were your football heroes as a kid?

I had a couple and I liked Parramatta and Canterbury, they were the two good teams of the early 1980’s.  It is quite funny, I wasn’t a winger as a kid, I was a front rower and a halfback.  I was a halfback because I was fast, you know as a kid you grab the ball from the scrum and just run and at other times a front rower because I was big.  Basically I played each position on the field as I went through. 

I used to like Steve Gearin and Eric Grothe and that’s why I think it is funny because after playing everywhere on the field I ended up being a winger.  The other one was Steve Mortimer.  I used to love his chip kicks.  Everyone used to talk about Peter Sterling, but I reckon Mortimer was better. 

Tell us about your junior football?

I played for Ashcroft High School.  There was the 1977 side which Gary Howell played in and they won the competition back then.  As we were growing up as kids we grew up respecting those guys.  That was the big thing along with the Coca-Cola knockout. 

Leading up to our win over Patrician Brothers, Ashcroft High had a four year period of winning just about every competition that was going on.  We even went into a Rugby Union competition and won that.  It was the first public school to ever do it, the first non union school to win. 

There was the move we used in the Commonwealth Cup Final win against Patrician Brothers which was used in an earlier game and worked that well that the guy scored without a hand being laid upon him.  That year we won the Forbes Knockout competition, the University Shield Grand Final and the Commonwealth Bank Cup.  They changed the rules that year for the State Knockout where the winners were decided by the first points rather than the first try and we got beat by 4-2.  The score was actually 4 points all but because of the rule they won by two. 

Players who played grade from my schoolboy years are Tony Cosatto, David Rowles, Tony Fahey and in the Patrician Brothers side there was Mitch Newton, Steve Karate, Greg Mannix. 

What go you to Penrith in 1985?

I went straight from the school boys team when I was 15 to train with the side.  Tim Sheens came out to our school boys team for a talk and he pulled me aside and said “I would love to have you over at Penrith.  The first year you will probably sit on the bench, you might get at best three games.  You can take that offer”.  I had Parramatta asking as well, but they weren’t real keen.  I liked how Timmy (Sheens) came out and that sort of stuff.  My Old Man said to me “Who would you rather be in competition with if you want to play First Grade? without disrespect towards the blokes, at Parramatta they have Eric Grothe and Neville Glover so basically you have no hope of getting in there, or you can go to Penrith and there is David Liddiard and Mark Robinson”.  I thought I had more of a chance at Penrith, so I went that way. 

I ended up playing about 15 games in 1986 and when we were getting close to the Semi Finals and we knew we were going to make it.  I had one bad game and I was dropped and didn’t get a look in for the rest of the time. 

Do you remember your first game in First Grade and what were the highlights and lowlights?

It was against Parramatta in a mid week comp game.  Peter Sterling wasn’t playing but Brett Kenny was, and that was just a buzz.  I was on the wing and I was 17 years old at the time. 

I remember the first couple of hit ups I made and I stepped into the tackle, and as I was going down Paul Mares comes in, punches me straight in the face and says “Welcome to First Grade”.  I was taught as a kid to get up, smile and laugh, so that is what I did.  The next time I got the ball from the kick off, I ran across field and saw Paul Mares and thought stuff that, ran a bit further over and stepped into a couple of blokes and as I was going down in the tackle, BANG, a punch in the face again.  Stan Jurd, and he said “Welcome to First Grade”.  So I got up again, I was dazed and that was it, that was the initiation. 

What was the culture like at Penrith?

I used to hang around with a whole lot of different people.  I used to room with Steve Carter and we would bet on everything, two flies going up the wall for instance.  We formed a great bond over the time that I was there. 

At times I would hang out with MG (Mark Geyer) and Brandy (Greg Alexander) and at other times I would be with Steve Carter, Col Van Der Voort and Barry Walker. 

Penrith were really building during the years from when you joined, how was the development?

I think they made their first Semi Final in 1985 and it was building every year after that.  The next year we came second in the Under 23’s and the year after they won the Reserve Grade, so it was leading up to the big one. 

The Under 23’s Grand Final, South’s had dropped nine First Graders for that game and they beat us.  Then the next year I actually got promoted to First Grade and that was to drop back the First Grade wingers to play Reserve Grade.  They make the calls with what they want to do; you just have to go with the flow in that respect. 

Playing in your first Semi Final?

I came off the bench and every time I ran the ball I got belted by Mal Meninga and forced about three metres back each time.  . 

What was the difference between previous years and making the Grand Final in 1990?

The difference was Gus (Phil Gould) brought in Peter Kelly and Chris Mortimer to show us the way in regards to professionalism and that sort of stuff.  How they came into games was a real eye opener. 

The culture before with Warren Fenton, Gary Howell and those sorts of blokes we would be reading the form guide before a game, real relaxed, but not the case with Peter Kelly and Chris Mortimer.  I can remember walking in to the change room and there was classical music being played, Mark Robinson had put it on, they had a psychologist out to talk to players and this was his way of motivating them.  When Peter Kelly walked in with this ghetto blaster playing classical music, he said “F@#$ that, I am not listening to this shit, threw it against the wall and smashed it to pieces.  When you looked at Kel (Peter Kelly) and he looked at you, it was as though he was looking at the back of your head, like he just wanted to kill you. 

He was there to toughen up the forwards, and to guide guys like MG. 

Chris Mortimer would be funny, when they were kicking off to us he would turn around and talk me through catching the ball “Now Smithy, you got to visualize the ball, close your arms together” I would say “F@#$ Off you old C$%#”.  He turned around and said “I will catch you” I replied, “No you won’t”.

How was the 1990 Grand Final experience?

It was funny, at the Grand Final breakfast we were at the Hilton and because it was there, we started drinking Moet and Don Peringon.  Each time they brought a bottle up, we would sign Col Bentley’s name.  I don’t know how many bottles we had, but they tallied up the bill to be $2,300.  I think it was about $80 a bottle.  Someone started it, think it was MG, he does things like that, we are just signing Col’s name. 

Gus came in half way through and went off his rocker.  We all woke up with hangovers and walked downstairs and Gus was talking to Timmy and said “Friggin idiots were out last night”. 

I don’t think it made too much difference, if anything I think it relaxed us.  We were all nervous and in a way it took our minds off the job.  In the end we came up against a Raiders side that was red hot. 

It was a buzz being at the game, very rarely do you get to experience something like that.  It was unbelievable.  It was all like a blur, fast paced. 

1991 new jersey, new mindset?

    

We knew we could get there and we knew we could do it.  We were hungry and professional.  Peter Kelly and Chris Mortimer retired but we had Nobby (Paul Clarke) come in.  We lost four games all year.  I think we had the most points for and and least points scored against, we were pretty much the dominant team all year. 

We played North’s in the Grand Final Qualifier and almost lost it.  They had a great team and every game we played against them was always close.  I think one game was 4-0, their defence was brilliant and ours was too. 

Was the lead up to the Grand Final different to the previous year?

We were just more professional, we didn’t do the grog thing.  I actually spent the week in hospital with tonsillitis, so I missed all of it anyway.  I actually wanted them taken out, they were bad enough to take them out but everyone around me said no.  They actually reckon it was brought on by stress, probably because of the game. 

There was a lot of talk from Canberra about injuries and that sort of stuff, whether they were making up excuses or not, I don’t know.  We had a lot of confidence coming into that match. 

I think they got ahead at first when we should have scored a try, the first half we weren’t playing that good.  It wasn’t until Gus got us in at half time.  He told us a couple of things before the game like, “watch Steve Walters striking the ball”.  In the first half I played the ball with the ball 1m behind me and he stuck his leg right through and raked it back and they got the ball.  So Gus at halftime gave me a big serving for that.  Also in the first half there was a kick across field and I let it bounce and it took off like a rocket.  I couldn’t see the ball because I was looking in the sun and Matthew Wood scored from that.  I thought I was going to be benched.  Gus just gave it to me, and gave it to the team.  “I didn’t put a suit on for f$#@ing nothing.  F$#% you c%$#s.  He was hitting things and smashing things, I said to the bloke next to me “I think I am off”.  He let me on there for the second half and my second half was awesome, probably the best half of football I ever played.  I remember hitting and spinning off Glenn Lazarus and making 15-20 yards.

    

We got up to their end of the field and never let them down to our end.  Even when MG was sent off we still stayed at their end of the field.  The basically couldn’t get off their own line, and to be able to do that against a Canberra team with so many stars was incredible. 

Phil Gould was extraordinarily smart in the respect of motivating people, he would be the best coach that I have been coached by.  I had some very good coaches such as Timmy Sheens, Graham Murray, just how Gus went about things was incredible.  He knew how to talk to each individual bloke, even though you might not get on that well, he knew how to speak to you personally.  He would leave some blokes alone and others who needed the motivation he would go and say the right things to them. 

In 1991 you played representative football for City, how was the experience?

Absolutely amazing!  I roomed with Cliff Lyons and that was funny because I walked into the room and I asked him if he mind if I smoked? And he goes “no problem Smitty, I smoke myself”.  It was the worst thing ever; he must have smoked 50 cigarettes a day, actually probably closer to 100.  The whole room was just smoke.  I get asthma if I smoke too much.  I only had about four smokes because I didn’t any with all of that passive smoke in the room. 

I was playing outside of Andrew Ettingshausen and what he said to me before the game was “I know your style of play, mate I don’t want you to come in on the players because if you think the player is going to get around me, he won’t.  I will get that bloke down”.  I said “fair enough, if you miss I will come in on the next one”.  In the game as the player was coming around him I was thinking he is going to get around him, and then sure enough he got him, straight around the ankles.  I was thinking wow, he was just a great player. 

How was the feeling for you and around the club when Ben Alexander passed away?

Ben passed away in 1992 mid season, they went off to a nightclub over at Mount Druitt.  I was hanging out with them a couple of weeks prior, going out all of the time with them and I chose not to go out just on that night.  It was shocking, I got a phone call at 6am from my Mum asking if I was alright. 

The feeling around the club completely changed, I couldn’t wait for the season to be over. 

How was your time at Penrith from 1992 to 1993?

In 1993 I did my knee and I tore one ligament 75% and the other one was 100%.  It was virtually a reconstruction, but they didn’t do it, they tried this other thing.  I asked what the surety of this other method is and they said if it doesn’t work we will give you a reconstruction.  I asked “Why not just give me a reconstruction to begin with?”  They persisted in this other method.  They virtually dictated to you what would be done. 

What got you to Wests in 1994?

At the end of the season they called me in and said they were only going to sign me for match payments.  It was like a kick in the guts.  They said you could look around if you want.  I could not find anyone who wanted me.  I went back and said I will accept that offer from Penrith and they said it is no longer on the table.  So I had to move on.  That is where your player loyalty comes.  That is why I don’t blame the players who have no loyalty to the clubs in that respect. 

    

The first year you got to West’s you scored the most tries in a season for the club?

Yes, 18 tries, I share it with Alan Ridley, he got it in 1932.  I got the 18 tries in 14 matches and then Brandon Pearson came along and he was my inside centre, he scored nine tries after that and I scored none.  He was just a hog.  I said you only need to pass the ball to me once and he wouldn’t do it. 

I did get into a gap where I could score and before the game I had a needle and it was playing up, I don’t know what went wrong but I was in constant pain with it.  The needle went in through the front of my foot and it hit a nerve and sent my whole foot numb.  I could see the line thinking I have got it, then one of the Hughes boys tackles me around the ankles, I pulled my arm out and missed the tryline by about a millimeter.  That would have given me the record.

I did score a lot of tries through Stephen Kearney, we had a great rapport and he had this ability to draw two or three defenders and be able to get an offload away.  He roamed around my side of the field so I scored heaps of tries from him.

How was the culture at West’s compared to Penrith?

The blokes were great, they were fantastic.  At Penrith you knew you were going to have success because there were so many big stars with players like John Cartwright, Mark Geyer, Greg Alexander, Brad Fittler, the lineup was amazing.  West’s didn’t really have that.  They still had some great players and they were just tough.  It was sort of like when you are growing up watching the West’s culture of tough, hard footballers. 

The coach at first was Warren Ryan and it was typical West’s mentality. 

I used to hang out with Steve Georgallis quite often, we got along pretty well when I played there, and other than that it was Justin Dooley.  I got along with a lot of the blokes.  I used to like going out and partying and that sort of stuff.  Tommy didn’t like that, when he came along he hated it.  I thought it was a great culture, where everyone goes out and enjoys each others company and I think it helps on the field, and that is how Penrith was. 

Your last year was in 1997, what do you remember about leading into the Super League War?

Tommy went and got eight blokes signed up and everyone else had to do their own thing.  I went in there and they offered $50,000.  I had heard about all this money going around at the time and I thought that offer was pretty shit, so I went around and did my own dealing.  I ended up getting a one off payment and that was more than the contract I was offered.  I actually would have got more if I signed with Super League.  Shane Richardson said Cronulla would take me on, so I could have ended up playing with Cronulla. 

I didn’t like the concept of Super League, I was hearing they wanted to promote it more and make it like Gridiron.  I just liked Rugby League how it was that is why I stayed with the ARL.  I am a bit of an old styled footballer. 

What was your highlight of playing Rugby League?

Both of the Grand Finals are highlights. 

Ashcroft High, that is right up there.  That was a great atmosphere with a great bunch of blokes; we still see each other to this day. 

Who was our most respected rival?

I did play against Eric Grothe Senior, and that was a mad buzz.  I would have to say either Michael Hancock or Chicka Fergo (John Ferguson).  You knew you had to play your best against them. 

What was the best team you played against?

Probably have to say the Canberra side. 

The Brisbane side was unreal.  When Brisbane came into the comp they had an absolutely awesome team but they didn’t perform on the field, I don’t know what the go was there.  They had about 15 Internationals in the team, it was crazy. 

When did you know it was time to give the game away?

When Tommy didn’t give me a run, I would have had to have gone to another club and trial again and I just thought, stuff that.  I couldn’t go to England either because they changed the rules that year.  You had to play twelve games in First Grade to able to play there which was stupid, because they changed the rules back the next year. 

So I just gave it away.  I didn’t want to put the body through another pre season of punishment with no guarantees. 

What followed after football?

Probably depression, in a way.  I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I was doing concreting until the guy I was working for got cancer and passed away.  So I didn’t know what to do after that. 

I looked around and found Toll who I am still working for to this day, 15 years. 

I have my partner and kids as well who are wonderful to have in my life. 

How has the game changed since your playing days?

I like the athleticism of the wingers in the modern game and the things that they do is incredible and I don’t know if I would be good enough to be there.  There are different training techniques so it is possible that I would be alright. 

What are your hobbies?

I love horse racing, bets on Saturdays. 

Have you collected your own footy cards?

I stopped collecting them back in the 1980’s and I gave away the special folder set that the ARL gave me that came in a binder limited to the players.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Enzo’s at Camden. 

 

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