It may not rival Odysseus’ twenty-year trek to and from the Trojan Wars, though at times it feels like it.
June 1985. The Canadian Men’s national rugby union team journeys to Australia. We log over 23,000 miles in the air. Four and a half weeks to work our way anti-clockwise around a vast country, arriving first in Cairns, then moving on to Darwin. From there to Perth, then Adelaide. Then Sydney and Brisbane.
In the process, we scratch out victories vs Queensland Country, Northern Territory and South Australia. Upset the Brisbane XV. Lose narrowly to Western Australia, and, as expected, find the power of the full New South Wales and Wallaby sides too much to handle.
One final encounter leaves us a chance to return home from Down Under with an overall winning record. We are in Gosford, matched vs New South Wales Country, an all-star selection from outside the greater Sydney area. My spies inform me that, of all the representative sides, the soon to be named Cockatoos will be the most unpredictable, ingenious, and innovative we face.
Indeed, “Country” has form. The coaches, first Daryl Haberecht, then Geoff Mould, champion out of the box thinking. It might be a 14-man scrum, or a “ball up the jumper” tap penalty move. Not all the ploys come off, but touring teams ignore the imaginative and outlandish approaches at their peril.
And the Cockatoos possess a deadly weapon, namely an ultra-dangerous right winger named Dwayne Vignes. Vignes is an absolute rarity, a Country player so skilled and talented he is also part of the full state and national squads.
Endless travel and the punishing schedule wreak havoc on the Canada selection, as the injury list mounts. As a result, while named on tour as a fly half, I am pressed into emergency service on the wing. Matched up against Vignes. An uncomfortable 80 minutes await.
The afternoon unfolds in the worst possible manner. Normally the surest of handlers, capable of catching pretty much anything that comes my way, I fluff the first chance by fumbling a dolly of a kick. Much to the amusement of the Country faithful in the packed grandstand.
Still, the game remains competitive the whole way, the result very much in question. Yet, I remain a fish out of water, operating in foreign surroundings. Struggling to settle in my new position, everything around me happening quicker and faster than normal. Vignes is as good as advertised, fast as lightning, slippery as an eel, strong as an ox. Always popping up in different places as the Country backline trots out unusual and ever-changing formations.
How does one chase down something so elusive? I never find an answer. Indeed, my main memory of the game is trudging behind our goal line again and again while the public address announcer confirms the inevitable. “Country try, his third today, scored by Dwayne Vignes!’’
Still, one final chance for redemption looms. We trail 27-23 with just minutes remaining. On patrol in our half, I spy Vignes lurking, set to join the Country attack. I race forward, time my tackle to perfection, absolutely flatten him. Of course, this time, after plenty of trickery, misdirection, feints, and dummy runners, he is only the decoy. The actual ball carrier speeds through the hole left in the defensive cordon, with the clinching score the result. The hosts prevail 31-23.
Post-game, we meet for the traditional drink, Vignes humble and classy. He is happy to share some of the Country playbook, how some of the strategies, while unorthodox, even weird and wacky, might unsettle the opposition. I decide right then, as a young coach back home in British Columbia just starting out at high school level, I also will look to incorporate and employ, when and where possible, similar “left field” tactics.
Over the next few years, I follow Vignes and his career as closely as I can. While an official Wallaby test cap eludes him, he remains a commanding presence on the national rugby scene. With, appropriately, his career to include one unforgettable twist.
Fast forward to July 1989. The Lions, representing the cream of the British Isles, are themselves touring Australia. As expected, one of their eleven wins comes at the expense of New South Wales Country. Dominant forward power rules the day, with the visitors in total control throughout, registering fourteen tallies en route to a 72-13 beatdown.
Still, the game lingers in the memory banks for another reason, swinging on a single surprise moment. Physically outgunned, Country, thanks to the devious mind of coach Haberecht, comes up with a radical solution. Namely, with no way through, to instead run straight over a scrum.
A long time in the planning, the move is called Gallipoli, as in “over the top.” With Dwayne Vignes selected as the player to quite literally hurdle the two forward packs.
Eventually, opportunity knocks. Country wins a scrum in the right corner, near the Lions goal line. Vignes roars forward from his wing position, receives a pop pass, uses the back of his own second row as a springboard. From there he leaps above and across the Lions pack, stumbling slightly when catching his foot on an opponent's shoulder. Nonetheless, he then sprawls forward and grounds the ball for a try.
The Lions are incensed, immediately piling on and administering some rough justice. The referee, having initially penalized the flying winger for dangerous play, then reverses this decision, allowing the score to stand while admonishing the visitors for over vigorous rucking.
The mainstream media in attendance are apoplectic, railing against the move as clearly not in the spirit of the game. Yet, Haberecht and the Country squad remain unmoved. Their focus is on entertainment, on stretching the imagination.
And, as I learned to my cost years before, that opponents should always expect the unexpected.