Alex Wood Roar Guru
By Alex Wood, 2 Sep 2015 Alex Wood is a Roar Guru

Once upon a time, Wallaby legend Nick Farr-Jones said: “Rugby touring is a lot like sex – when it’s good it’s really good, and when it’s not good… well, it’s still pretty darn good.”

The same is true of rugby presentation dinners. No matter who you play for, where the event is held or size of the budget there is always a good time to be had on preso night.

In my first and only season playing for Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, I had the pleasure of attending an event known as Mensa. Legend has it that Mensa was conceived on the premise that the uni lads (whose third grade mascot, stitched into the jersey no less, was a chubby bloke in a club jersey holding a beer) had too many annual events centred around the bar and that once a year they should get together and act as gentlemen.

In the spirit of behaving like gentlemen, suits and ties are mandatory at Mensa, as are cigars (proper ones) and the drink of choice for the luncheon as one might expect, is port.

Of course, with the passage of time the fabled purpose of Mensa was conveniently forgotten and it ended up being one of the biggest parties of the annual calendar, but what a party it was. I can seldom remember having so much fun for no apparent reason.

Like any (ex)player, I have found myself at events like this with rugby clubs all over the country, and each and every time it’s that same old familiar feeling. Thanks to the emphasis rugby places on sportsmanship, friendship and inclusion these events really don’t change a great deal from one club to the next and it’s like being welcomed by a group of old friends no matter where you go.

This atmosphere, the spirit of rugby, carries through to the evening where as it is on the paddock, mutual respect leads the group goal of having as much fun as possible. It is true that as a cohort, rugby players have been known to indulge in what some might call too much of the amber liquid flowing through the tap.

However I have rarely if ever witnessed this indulgence result in anything other than harmless and hilarious fun. It simply lubricates the conversation and perhaps helps channel the larrikin spirit that is so valued by the rugby fraternity (and sorority).

Last Thursday night, I was fortunate enough to step through the doors to the Ballroom at Royal Randwick Racecourse to the most prestigious presentation night of the all. Having been handed an invitation about a week before, I was going to have the opportunity to attend what Greg Martin described as “Australian rugby’s night of nights” – the John Eales Medal.

I had expected, planned in fact, to be sitting here nursing my rather sore head today writing about having met the legends of the game, both current and of generations past. I was going to reflect on what an honour it had been to witness Tim Horan being inducted into the Wallaby Hall of Fame and how Israel Folau accepting his second John Eales Medal was nothing but class.

All of that turned out to be true, but for me it was entirely overshadowed by some of those honoured who are less well known and finding myself attending a dinner honouring the very pinnacle yet surrounded by that same old familiar presentation night feeling.

Even time-honoured tradition of players sneaking a silly word or two into acceptance speeches was in full flight with Sean McMahon, on accepting Rookie of the Year, declaring that it was “absoslootly” one of the highlights of his young career. I have entirely no idea what absoslootly means, but I’m sure his teammates had a laugh and that’s the point.

It was all just such good fun. It’s appropriate too that this article starts with a quote from Nick Farr-Jones as that familiarity I mentioned, the spirit of rugby, was most evident during my highlight of the evening – the presentation of the Nick Farr-Jones Spirit of Rugby award to Randwick legend Jeffrey Sayle.

Before Thursday night I had never heard of Jeffrey Sayle or ‘Sayley’ as he is apparently known, but a bit of research has taught me that his exploits as a player and man are epic. And while it is hard to tell how much of what I have read since then is true, and how much is lore it certainly makes for entertaining reading.

Did you hear the one about the referee who once penalised Matraville before the match had even started? That would be Jeff Sayle. And what was the reason he gave to the Matraville captain for the penalty? “It’s for the bastard who took my car last time we played, that’s what!”

Or how about the Randwick forward who, having drifted into the backs, was told by Ken Catchpole – now Wallaby royalty – to get back into the ruck only to respond, “I’ve got every right to be here. I paid the same fees as you!”

If you have the time I’d encourage you to take a look at his profile page on the ARU website as it really is entertaining stuff, but for those of you who don’t let me summarise it with a short quote:

“Every one who knows him has a ‘Sayley’ story, somewhat in the manner of two other immortals, Bill Cerutti and Stan Pilecki. In Sayley’s case the stories have a seemingly mythic quality, but in actual fact they are invariably true. He simply is the stuff of which legends are made.”

As a life-long player and diehard fan of Randwick rivals Eastwood, my father may have disowned me saying such things about a Randwick player, but after Thursday night I have my own Sayley story and it simply is the stuff of which legends are made.

For those who don’t yet know, as a player Jeffrey Sayle, Wallaby number 510, earned just one Test cap playing for Australia against the All Blacks in 1967 and a handful with NSW. But most notably he made a staggering 379 club games for Randwick, having started with the Wicks at an early age.

His tenure as both a player and coach saw him capture numerous first grade premierships and ultimately would see him commit much of his life to the club where he is the patron and a lifetime member.

After having these substantial achievements recounted to him by Greg Martin and asked “where would you be without the Galloping Greens?” an ageing Jeffrey Sayle made his way rather slowly to the microphone and with a crackle in his voice that suggested he was on the brink of tears answered as follows: “I don’t know… probably better off! Clearly none of you know my doctor.”

The ballroom erupted with laughter, basking in his dry wit and for the first time in the night to that point the ice had been broken and everyone in the room relaxed, forgot about the black tie formalwear, and started having a good time.

What followed was one of the funniest, most honest and humble acceptances of an award I will ever witness. It was clear to see that Sayle, with a tear rolling down his cheek, was conflicted in accepting the award as in his words, “awards like this aren’t what the game is about”.

And yet, with a speech of such rare humility, that same man of legend shone through, finding time to shoot a few courageous and pointed words at the executives of the ARU which echo the sentiment of fans – that they have, in many ways, let the game down.

After the speech, standing outside during the intermission, it was clear that I was not alone in my sentiment having witnessed the legend of Sayle. With the social assistance of the free-flowing ale beginning to work its magic a number of former players, myself included, all got chatting and it was clear everyone had been moved by the presentation of the Nick Farr-Jones Spirit of Rugby award.

Like me, they know that the character, humility and perhaps most importantly the courageous spirit which led to Sayley having the guts to have a dig at the ARU on home turf, during the biggest event of their calendar, was inherent to the players of our game and the reason we all keep coming back.

The simple truth is that most never achieve the highest accolades of our game like the one bestowed upon Jeff Sayle on Thursday night. Nonetheless, every club large and small dotted across our nation has its own Sayley – a man or woman who has embraced with their whole person the essence of rugby. Their job is to ensure those values are imbued in future generations of players and fill the shoes of club patron by acting as an elder statesman and mentor to all.

What I witnessed on Thursday night – the reactions of all in attendance to Jeffrey Sayle, the attitude with which the night was conducted, the conversations I had with complete strangers about the game of rugby and its value – restored my hope that despite a long and tumultuous period the spirit of rugby is alive and well in Australia.

Alive and well despite the top level, for a period of time, appearing to have lost track of that crucial cultural aspect of the game that (as has always been the case) the grassroots level and those like Jeffrey Sayle have safeguarded. This is the essence of rugby and what Sayley and those like him have done is ensured its survival for the benefit of future generations.

Aided by fantastic and constructive journalists like Christopher Roche and Andrew Logan, both of whom write here on The Roar, the faithful have succeeded in pushing the core principles which guide all players and officials up through the ranks. And despite the ARU’s well documented shortcomings they have seen Michael Cheika take the helm of the Wallabies.

Another Randwick alum, Cheika too understands the importance of these values to the players and the game. With any luck he’ll succeed in his quest to bring them back to our national side as well.

And it was clear to see at the John Eales medal too. One of the former players whom I spoke to on the night, a bloke named Rory, told me about how his involvement in rugby had been responsible for him meeting his wife, and when living in England and Canada for work ensuring that he always had a place to belong and a group of close mates.

My story is a similar one, having moved halfway across the country to a boarding school and knowing no one, thanks to rugby I always felt at home.

For me it was the highlight of the night. Being overcome by the realisation that once you take away the cameras, the red carpet, the tuxedos and Rod Kafer’s painfully obvious quips the John Eales Medal, rugby’s night of nights, is just another presentation dinner.

What a great thing that is. I love the Wallabies, and I will support them forever but they are not what our game is about. Rugby is a game about people and a game about community.

Men and women all over Australia and the world give their time to make sure the players can take the field each week because they know, like I know and like Jeffrey Sayle knows, the simple fact is that the spirit of rugby is important. It really does matter.

Our game gives young men and women across Australia a place to belong and a place they will be accepted. It has been said before but it really doesn’t matter if you are short, tall, fat, skinny, fast, slow, gay, straight, male or female rugby has a place for you. And if you play, you will be respected, because if we cut right through all the rubbish, every last player knows the courage it takes to lace up your boots, chomp down on a mouthguard and step onto the pitch to play the thugs game that is played by gentlemen.

All the while these players, our future generations, are learning the all-too-rare life skills of self-discipline, respect, sacrifice, teamwork and bravery in the face of fear which they will carry with them for the rest of their life.

In the modern world, with technology and in particular social media eating away at the emphasis we as a nation once placed on character and respect for your fellow man, the spirit of rugby is more important than ever. It is not the only way for a young man or woman to grow-up, but it is a pretty darn good one.

The overwhelming enjoyment I took from Thursday night then was not the all-star cast, but the knowledge that I’m not alone in believing in the importance of the game. Through everything – even the darkest time in the history of our national side with coaches and international rankings dropping like flies – Australian rugby culture has emerged stronger than ever, ready to provide a necessary service to yet another up and coming generation.

Alex is an ex-rugby player with 10 seasons under his belt, almost exclusively with the brains trust up in the front row. Despite passion for the game, his best work was usually seen at the pub post-match where he mastered the dark-art of talking bollocks about rugby.

You can follow Alex on Instagram @whiskyandiron and Twitter @alexwood_1.

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6 April 2019
Coogee Oval
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