Touch Football Victoria life membership for Laurie Smyth

Sale Touch Association president Laurie Smyth proudly wears the life membership badge awarded to him by Touch Football Victoria in early April one of only five in circulation. Photo: Sarah Luke

Sarah Luke

LAURIE Smyth has been awarded a life membership to Touch Football Victoria – an honour only bestowed upon five other people during the organisation’s history.

Readers may recognise Laurie’s touch footballs reports which frequent the Gippsland Times‘ sport section, or perhaps his name mentioned in an article or 10.

During the past few years, there have been several: from his advocacy for an improved Stephenson Park, to fulfilling his passion for the past as president of Sale Historical Society.

In these pages, he has been described as enthusiastic organiser of one of Victoria’s largest touch football tournaments, his decade-long stint as Sale Rotary Club secretary has been recognised, and he has even been announced as Wellington Shire Citizen of the Year in 2018.

In addition, he has read every Gippsland Times issue from the first one published in 1861 until Tuesday’s.

“I can remember a lot of what I’ve read, but I’m not too sure of my kids’ birthdays,” he admitted to the Gippsland Times in a recent interview.

His eye for detail, dedication to administration and research addiction certainly aid his position as president of Sale Touch Association – a position he has held for an astounding 28 years, or 56 seasons – but it is his passion for people that keeps him in the job.

For a man who’s never played the sport, Laurie goes beyond and above for touch football, giving his time freely to ensure those more able-bodied can take to the field each week.

“Don’t ask me what the rules are; that’s what the refs are for,” he offered.

While he did mark the lines on the pitch for some 25 years, mobility has begun to pose an issue for the 78-year-old in recent months.

Laurie now benefits from a more supervisory role, but is still there at 6pm sharp to ensure no details are overlooked by his loyal committee – after all, it has a lot to owe to him.

The association is Laurie’s brainchild.

Nearly three decades ago, Laurie’s son had attempted to join a rugby onion team at RAAF Base, East Sale, however the competition was having trouble attracting players because of the long distances they had to travel, with some games held as far afield as Ballarat and Bendigo.

Laurie thought he could hold touch football as a feeder competition for rugby at the one venue, and held a meeting at Sale Sports and Community Club to see what interest there was for the sport, popular in New South Wales and Queensland.

While the rugby competition died off, soon the touch association was flourishing, with Laurie at the helm as its inaugural president.

After beginning at the Sale Showgrounds, where players had to pay a gold coin donation to run the lights, the association was able to secure its permanent headquarters at Stephenson Park.

The RAAF remained an integral part of the association, with many Defence players and referees taking to the field each week, joining players from Sale and its surrounding areas (as far as Yarram and Bairnsdale).

Soon, the association’s committee built itself into the well-oiled machine that runs the Sale Touch Knock-Out tournament, which annually attracts about 50 teams of local, interstate and international players, and books out motels and eateries across Sale for the weekend.

“It’s probably the longest-running touch tournament in the state,” Laurie said.

“Normally we’d bring in 1000 people for the event.

“We normally get a team of Kiwis – the Maori boys come over – we have two teams come out of Hobart, and referees come out of Newcastle and Sydney.

“It’s really a big thing on the calendar.

“It’s worth over $3 million for Sale … but we just plod on.”

The association has also hosted the Victorian Teams Titles some 14 times, as well as games and activities for people with physical and mental disabilities.

The positive influence the now-established sport has had locally is immeasurable.

And while his sons have moved on, Laurie has stayed.

“I think it is a good sport with good people … it’s a really social activity,” he said.

“Most of them know me – I’d say 90 per cent of the people out there know me – and if there’s any hassles or anything, they’d just come up and see me.

“Because it’s social, we alter the rules … we’re not playing for sheep stations – it’s not hard and fast.”

Touch is something of a family affair, with Laurie watching young people take to the field as teens, disappear, and return as parents raising their own children as the next generation of touch.

From his self-described “old person’s point of view”, Laurie reflected on a moment recently where a burly, bearded man went out of his way to (re)introduce himself to Laurie, and Laurie realised he had played some years ago as a teenager.

“He’s doing astrophysics … they’re really smart kids that have gone on,” he said.

While he might swear the weekly competition runs more smoothly when he’s not there, it’s clear the association loves him as much as he loves it.

“My wife, who is now in permanent care, and I were both given life membership to Sale Touch Association in 1998,” he said.

“I laughed when they gave it to us; I said that’s one way to keep Jill and I.”

But now Laurie can add another life membership pin to his lapel – one from Touch Football Victoria.

The organisation’s chairman, Cecilia Eichler, recently congratulated Laurie on the mammoth achievement.

“To be awarded life member of Touch Football Victoria is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a member, and Laurie is one of only five members to be awarded this honour in Victoria,” she said.

“Laurie’s passion for touch football is infectious, and has influenced many of us in the way he operates.”