Years apart but old school ties run deep
Nick Smith, Cyril Rioli and Nathan Djerrkura at Scotch College.
WILL Strange befriended Cyril Rioli when he arrived at Scotch College from Melville Island. He remembers watching in gobsmacked awe from the boundary as Rioli, then in year 10, kick 10 goals in a first XVIII match against Carey. ''One was a 70-metre torpedo,'' said Strange. It is a performance that has gone down in schoolboy folklore.
The next year, Strange joined Rioli in the firsts. One day against Geelong College, coach Steve Holding ordered the forward line to clear out for Rioli. ''I was one of the ones being told to get out,'' Strange said. ''I got the instruction to go nowhere near him.'' Rioli kicked five goals in a quarter, Scotch won and proceeded to win the Associated Public Schools premiership. ''He could do things we could only dream about,'' said Holding.
Captain and best and fairest in that team was Nick Smith, in year 11, but a firsts player since year 9. Strange remembered that Smith did nothing spectacularly, but everything well. At cricket, he bowled leg-spin and took 100 APS wickets the previous summer. In footy, he was by far the best kick in the team. ''At training, the coach would say: 'this is how you should be kicking','' said Strange.
Catch me if you can: Former schoolmates Cyril Rioli and Nick Smith in action in the AFL.
On Saturday, Rioli and Smith will share a football ground again, but on opposite teams, in the AFL grand final. Probably, Sydney's Smith will be tasked to mind Hawthorn's Rioli. If the Hawks find themselves in a pinch, coach Alastair Clarkson might choose to isolate Rioli one-out against Smith. It would be how it often was on murky training nights six years ago, but with millions watching.
In a way, Rioli versus Smith on the one day in September also would be the moral to a parable. Scotch has a long-standing partnership with Tiwi Islands football. Scotch teams visit each year - Smith and Strange both toured - and Tiwi boys come to Scotch, some for a month, some to stay. Teenagers with diametrically different upbringings become equals in football. Among the contemporaries of Smith and Rioli were Nathan Djerrkura and Ed Barlow, who would also have short AFL careers.
In the case of Rioli and Smith, the contrast runs deeper still. As personalities, said schoolday contemporaries, they were similarly reserved and humble, ''understated'', said Holding. Rioli's name preceded him to Scotch, but you would never have known it, said Strange.
But as footballers, they were, if not chalk and cheese, Gruyere and gorgonzola. ''Cyril had more tricks, but Nick was the more consistent of the two,'' said Holding. ''People don't recognise how good Nick is.''
Strange, an A-grade amateur footballer with Old Scotch, said Smith stood out for his dedication. Playing simultaneously for Scotch and Oakleigh Chargers, he trained four nights a week. ''Everyone else would be in having a shower, or leaving, and he'd still be out there with one of the coaches,'' he said. ''You could see his desire. It showed in his footy and his cricket. He was probably the best leg-spin bowler I've seen.''
Vinod Kambli, Sachin Tendulkar's schoolboy accomplice, said once that Tendulkar had taken the lift to Test cricket while he took the stairs. So it might be said of Rioli and Smith. Rioli was taken by Hawthorn at No. 12 in the 2007 draft, and by the end of his first year was a premiership player. Now, at 23, he has a licence to thrill - and kill. Just ask Adelaide.
Smith began with Sydney as a rookie, and was elevated in 2008. At 24, he is an archetype of the virtue that coach John Longmire most prizes in his team, selflessness. Noted Strange: ''You can't have 18 Cyrils. But you'd probably get away with 18 Nick Smiths.'' Put another way, Rioli personifies statistically the best attack in the AFL this season, Smith the best defence.
Both stay in touch with their alma mater; Smith addressed the football team earlier this year. Strange and Rioli remain mates. Strange remembers Rioli almost bursting with pride as he showed off his premiership medallion in 2008, and how he slept with it that night. Mused Strange: ''To think now he's going up against his captain from year 11.''