31 January, 2022
New Pride CEO wants to pave the way for next generation
Garreth Smith says he won't forget his grassroots upbringing when he steers the Northern Pride into the future.
HE might look like a big, tough forward, but there’s a soft side to the new chief executive officer of the Northern Pride.
It’s been an emotional week for Garreth Smith, a once-wild kid from Cape York who spent his youth roaming the neighbourhoods of Weipa and Napranum.
A more than handy footy player in his prime, Smith says his remote upbringing will help him shape the Northern Pride back into a grassroots club that caters for the entire Far North region.
“I was a kid who grew up in Weipa that didn’t really have an opportunity locally,” he said.
“There are a lot of kids in the Cape and Torres Strait, as well as other parts of the Pride footprint, who have been overlooked.
“We need to bring back that strong pathway and make sure we look after those kids who have the ambition to follow an NRL dream.”
Smith is the father of Pride rake Denzel King and Seamus King-Smith, who is currently training with the Melbourne Storm.
His wife Florrie is a Torres Strait Islander and his whole family, including daughter Tatyana, have different colour skin to him.
But talk to those in the Cape and Torres Strait and Smith is one of them – a revered figure in rugby league circles.
It gives him an enormous sense of pride. Smith played in dozens of carnivals in the Torres Strait over the years and one year captained the Mulga Tigers – a feat never done by a white fella before.
A LOVE OF THE GAME
RUGBY league flows through his veins and that’s why Smith was so keen to take on the Pride CEO role, so that he could continue to give back to the game that had given him so much.
To know Smith is to know his story and it’s hard to imagine he was once a cheeky red-headed kid who spent his time in the Aboriginal community of Napranum.
“When I was a little kid we moved to Weipa when dad got a job with Comalco,” he recalled.
“Mum was the director of the Napranum kindergarten so I was always down there.
“It was normal for me. I didn’t see the difference between black and white people.”
Napranum was probably at its best back then, too.
It was a high functioning community without the interference of alcohol management plans and other government programs.
Smith did his schooling at the then Weipa North State School, now known as Western Cape College. He played his first organised rugby league when he was around 11 years old.
“They only had under-13s and mum wouldn’t let me play footy so we had to sneak down to the oval to play with the big kids,” he said.
His life was turned upside down when the family moved to Brisbane and he was enrolled at a Lutheran school.
“When I went to school in Weipa I was flat out getting a shirt on my back,” he said.
“This school was strict and I had to repeat Grade 7.
“I got teased about my red hair and there were no black kids around me. It was an adjustment.”
Smith was eventually sent to Ipswich Grammar School on a scholarship, most likely for his footballing talent.
However, there were problems.
Firstly, Ipswich Grammar is a rugby union school and, secondly, Smith didn’t know he was meant to be a rugby player.
“I didn’t play in the first year. I didn’t like what union looked like,” he said.
“I had only ever played league.”
He soon got given his orders.
“They told me I was there to play rugby so I better start playing,” he said.
The departure of his father, who moved overseas, was a challenge.
“It was difficult because I would always see dad at the footy. But it probably helped me with rugby because I put all my focus into it,” Smith said.
“I got really good at it and I found myself becoming a leader and didn’t really know why.”
Smith was part of the Ipswich Grammar team that won the Queensland GPS title in 1993 – the last time Ipswich held the trophy.
The following year, in what was his final year of high school, the kid from Weipa was named captain of the boys’ First XV.
“I know it sounds bad saying it but I was a superstar at school,” he said.
“I was like a celebrity.”
OFF THE RAILS
SMITH signed with Canterbury in the NRL and was supposed to be heading to Sydney after finishing at Ipswich Grammar.
“I went off to schoolies and never came back,” he recalled.
“I just didn’t have the guidance. I remember calling Chris Anderson to tell him and he was pretty straight with me and told me that the Bulldogs weren’t going to tolerate that kind of nonsense.”
His professional footy career was over before it began.
It started a dark time for Smith, who struggled with the loss of his identity after high school. He signed with Wests in the Brisbane competition and didn’t last.
“I went there because they gave me an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. I wasn’t there for long.”
Smith admitted he was likely depressed.
“I was just surviving. Footy was the only thing that made me feel good. I was partying and drinking too much,” he said.
So the speedy centre went back to Ipswich and played with the Jets’ colts team.
On the cusp of making the Queensland under-19s team, he did his knee.
“That was rock bottom for me,” he said.
“I just wanted to go home. For me, that was Weipa.”
Smith flew back to the Cape, picked up some work to cover the money he borrowed from his mum to pay for his knee surgery and returned to Brisbane.
“I thought ‘union is my go’ so I went and played with Sunnybank as a lot of Ipswich Grammar boys went there,” he said.
“But I was still a bit angry and started getting a reputation.
“However I was playing well enough to get some interest from the Cowboys. I had a train and trial deal and then I busted my knee again.
“At this stage, I was done with footy and went back to Weipa.”
Smith did his motor mechanic apprenticeship at the Weipa Servicentre and had a ball.
He played footy locally and travelled around the communities for carnivals.
“I met Flo through footy. She came to training once and I was gone,” Smith said.
“She was keeping fit. She had played Australian rugby. She was a nurse and studying to be a teacher.”
They were a family when Smith got an important phone call.
“I think I was about 25 and I got a call from the Jets,” he said.
“They said: ‘Smithy, how much do you weigh?’ I told them I was about 112kg. They asked ‘Are you still quick?’ and I told them that I think so.”
Soon enough they were back down in Brisbane and although Smith was playing A-grade and had a reasonable job, money was tight and they never really felt at home.
With three mouths to feed they ended up back in Weipa after Flo took a job at the school’s residential campus.
“I was so happy to be coming home,” Smith said.
“That was the beginning for me in a way.”
He began a mission to rebuild rugby league in the region and was part of the formation of the Napranum Bulldogs.
“I have never had an experience like it,” he said.
“The Bulldogs become celebrities in their own community. No one beat them in two years.”
SMITH was part of one of the biggest feats in Far North rugby league history when he played for a Torres and Cape side that nearly won the prestigious Foley Shield.
In 2009, no one thought the remote squad would have a chance of winning a game, let alone taking home the trophy.
But the Torres and Cape team, coached by Barry Nona, made it all the way to the final.
They were beaten 32-22 by the star-laden Innisfail-Eacham team in Townsville.
“The format suited us that year as it was a carnival. Danny Mosby was captain and I was vice captain and I can remember everyone being excited,” Smith recalled.
“We demonstrated something that no one else had and represented our footprint.
“They saw me as the white guy in a black man’s team.”
THE co-founder of the Central Cape Suns rugby league club in Weipa is no stranger to footy administration.
Teaming up with the likes of Rod Whittle and Craig Law from Western Cape College, Smith was able to give junior rugby league a genuine presence for Weipa kids.
He said he owed a great deal of gratitude to Goodline founder John Kennedy.
“He was a massive influence on me and he just gave us everything we needed and more,” Smith said.
“I rang (wife) Cathy the other day and even though John is struggling at the moment, she put me on speaker and I was able to tell them the news (about the new job).
“John was always one of my big supporters.”
Away from rugby league, Smith has grown his career, too.
He was encouraged by Tom Murray to take a role at Rio Tinto as a serviceman and climbed the ladder to become a superintendent.
Recently, he switched to BHP as the principal of leadership and capability.
Smith believes his experience will help him return the Pride back to one of the strongest clubs in the Queensland Cup competition.
“For me, it’s all about culture and I think the club has probably lost its way a little bit in recent years,” he said.
“Footy is of course the number one priority but we need success at both ends; on and off the field.
“It’s a fine balance but if you turn your focus onto one thing it will impact the other.”
The Pride was once considered the best club in the land after winning the Queensland Cup in both 2010 and 2014.
In the latter season, the Pride went on to beat the Penrith Panthers in the inaugural NRL State Championship at ANZ Stadium.
Four of the Pride’s players were offered NRL contracts and coach Jason Demetriou left to take up the role of assistant coach at the North Queensland Cowboys.
Demetriou is now the head coach of the Rabbitohs.
Smith hopes he can help steer the Pride back to those glory days.
“The first priority is to understand what purpose we serve,” he said.
“People need to feel like there is a genuine pathway and the club is represented at the highest level.
“To do that we need operational stability and reconnecting with our footprint, which goes south to Cardwell, across to Normanton and includes the Cape and Torres Strait, as well as Cairns, Innisfail and the Tablelands.
“It’s going to be a real challenge but I’m not here to re-invent the wheel. We’ve been able to do it before and we can do it again.”