Recalling Spooky Smith's silky skills

Ian Smith
Ian Smith
Joss Miller pays tribute to Ian Smith, The Gimmerburn Ghost. 

The great Brian Lochore died recently. Apart from being a towering figure for the All Blacks as captain, he also went on to become coach of the national team and subsequently a selector.

Outside of rugby he was an outstanding and gifted New Zealander much admired by many. His accolades were numerous but of particular note was his induction in 2007 into the Order of New Zealand, this country's highest honour. Much has been said and will continue to be said about him over the coming weeks. However, I want to concentrate on someone less known whose rugby story is fascinating in its own way.

It is former All Black I. S. T. Smith, who died in 2017. During his playing days he had been a contemporary and team-mate of Brian Lochore. He was known as Spooky Smith or more commonly as the Gimmerburn Ghost. In the eyes of impressionable youth the Gimmerburn Ghost was as great if not greater than the greatest of All Blacks. There was mystery surrounding the origin of these names.

To shed light on this required Sherlock Holmes-type investigations. There were some obvious questions to be answered, such as where is Gimmerburn, who was Spooky Smith and what was it that created this particular aura? Google Earth quickly and helpfully provided some assistance with Gimmerburn, which was described as being in the centre of the Maniototo Plains and largely a farming community. Despite relative isolation it has an impressive rugby ground and sports facilities. This is where former All Black Andrew Hore and his beloved Maniototo Maggots rugby team would have on occasions played.

Ian Stanley Talbot Smith grew up mainly in Dunedin but as a young man gained employment as a farm worker at Closeburn Station near Gimmerburn. It was at this time his rugby career began to blossom. Coincidentally, a fellow team-mate I. D. Smith also played for Gimmerburn and Otago. The namesake could see this similarity was likely to cause confusion but once he referred to

I. S. T. Smith as looking spooky the legend was born. Spooky Smith played 24 games for the All Blacks, including nine test matches as a wing three-quarter. This included a home series against South Africa and the British and Irish Lions. He was good-natured and a popular team member. Apart from playing provincial rugby for Otago he also represented Southland and North Otago. At the end of his rugby career he farmed near Peel Forest for about 30 years.

I recall at a young age watching Maniototo play South Otago at the showgrounds in Balclutha. Spooky Smith was our hero. He displayed all his silky skills and was able to accelerate effortlessly and appeared to almost ghost through the opposition backline.

In 1964 he played for the All Blacks against the Australians at Carisbrook and every time he received the ball a mighty cheer would erupt from the stands and terraces. The Wallabies that day had several players with quite exotic names, including flanker Jules Guerassimoff and halfback Ken Catchpole.

Ian Stanley Talbot Smith will be remembered forever in Gimmerburn and across the great plains of the Maniototo.

Perhaps there should be a memorial there or some permanent reminder of this elusive and talented rugby player who will always be affectionately known and remembered as the Gimmerburn Ghost.

 - Joss Miller is a retired Dunedin lawyer.


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