John Burns Smith was born on 25 September 1922 at Kaikohe, Northland, one of three children of Niria Takiwira (Dargaville) and her husband, Leslie John Smith. His father, a baker who had settled in the town after serving in the First World War, had played rugby for South Auckland and represented North Island Country in 1912. His mother belonged to the hapu Te Uri-o-Hua of Nga Puhi, and was from Kaikohe.
Even at school Johnny Smith demonstrated uncanny ability to adapt to any sport. He attended Kaikohe School and then went on to Kaikohe District High School, where he played for the First XV from 1935 to 1937. After leaving school he worked in the family bakery, and linked up with the Kaikohe Rugby Football Club. In 1940 he joined the army. It was while playing in an army match, at Palmerston North in September 1942, that he first commanded the attention of rugby followers outside Northland. He had made his first-class début for the 12th Brigade Group side earlier that year and went on to represent the North Island in August 1943. The following month he appeared for the New Zealand army against the Royal New Zealand Air Force, running 40 yards to score late in the match and help turn an 8–9 deficit into an army victory.
In January 1944 Smith went overseas and served with the 21st Battalion in the Middle East and Italy. Subsequently, he won selection in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force rugby team, the incomparable Kiwis of 1945–46, for whom it is generally agreed he played his finest rugby. He appeared in 13 of the team’s first 16 matches in Britain, Ireland and France, missed four with influenza, and then played in the final 13 games. A second five-eighth or centre, he was a stocky man with powerful thighs and sharp acceleration. Rugby critics hailed his perfect poise, his swerve, fend and sidestep, his superb timing of passes, and the fact that he never, even under the greatest provocation, lost his cool. Known as The Master, JB or just plain Johnny, he was an outstanding team player, admired not just for the tries he scored, but for the numerous opportunities he created for his team mates; it was said that he ‘made mediocre wings into champions’.
Following the Kiwis tour Johnny Smith returned to Northland, and on 30 November 1946, at Okaihau, he married Dorothy Constance Alice Robinson; they were to have three daughters and a son. That year he led his North Auckland side to a runaway win over the touring Australians, and soon afterwards he appeared in his first test for the All Blacks, scoring a try in a 31–8 win against Australia in Dunedin. In 1947 he and his younger brother Peter toured Australia with the All Blacks, and the following year he captained the New Zealand Maori team to Fiji.
Along with other gifted Maori players, such as Vince Bevan and Ben Couch, Smith was ineligible for the 1949 All Black tour to South Africa because of its racial policies. That season he was, for the first time in New Zealand, at his brilliant best in the North–South match at Wellington. He captained a New Zealand side in two tests against the touring Australians while the All Blacks were in South Africa. Both matches were lost, and he always joked that he created a record as the ‘only captain in New Zealand history to lose every game he captained’.
Although troubled by injury and lack of fitness, in the early 1950s he continued to play in All Black trials, for the North Island and for the New Zealand Maori side. His disallowed try for North Auckland against the 1950 British Lions, which would have given his side victory, earned a place in local rugby folklore. Later that year he led North Auckland to their first Ranfurly Shield win, defeating South Canterbury at Timaru; they defended the shield twice before losing it to Waikato. In 1951 Johnny and Peter Smith played together for the Maori team against Fiji.
Johnny Smith’s meagre record of nine matches (four tests) for the All Blacks between 1946 and 1949 does not do justice to his talents or to the impact he had on the sport. He was the first recipient of the Tom French Cup (the New Zealand Rugby Football Union’s trophy for the outstanding Maori player of the year) in 1949. After retiring from first-class rugby in 1954 he became a successful coach, taking charge of the North Auckland side in 1956; he was also a selector.
Smith excelled in numerous other sports, notably swimming, tennis, cricket and golf. He had won the 1938–39 national junior tennis doubles title with Allan Burns, and after the Second World War appeared regularly in national senior championship tournaments. He was also a top amateur golfer and cricketer. His brother Peter (who died in 1954, aged 29) and sister Winnie were both outstanding tennis players, and his son Glen was national freestyle swimming champion.
Johnny Smith took over the family bakery around 1949, and later worked as a carpenter, barman and fisherman. He had a number of health problems in later years, many of them developing from a kick to the head during a wartime match in Italy. He also suffered from pituitary gland problems, and for years travelled from Kaikohe to Auckland every three months for treatment. He died at Auckland Hospital on 3 December 1974, survived by Dorothy and three of his children.