MICHAEL APPS RUGBY EULOGY (Written by Michael Roff)
Madonna has asked me to talk about Michael’s involvement in rugby. While I believe most of what I will tell you is true, I admit some of it is based on the hazy memories of middle-aged men.
Appsy played at 5/8, and according to local media coverage, his play was characterised by skills in swift transfer of the ball, coverage of the blind side, tactical kicking, solid defence, and courage.
I only played rugby with Appsy at ANU a couple of times, but I distinctly remember the first time I played with him.
It was 1984, my first year at Uni, at a pre-season trial game. We were defending, so like all good wingers, I was standing deep on the blind side, hiding in the tram tracks. There was a turnover and before Appsy had even received the ball he yelled at me to run, so I did. He then threw a beautiful cut-out pass that hit me on the chest and I just had to step around the opposing hooker, and sprint 25 metres to score.
I picked up the ball, jogged back to Appsy to thank him for making me look good, and because I had been indulging in all that University has to offer for first year students, I promptly threw up on his boots, and we were mates from that point on.
There’s no denying that Michael was the sort of person us mere mortals hated, he was a gifted natural athlete and it appears he had been all his life.
As we have heard, at St Patricks College, he played 1st XI cricket, captained the 1st XV rugby team, was school athletics champion, school cross country champion, but apparently only the runner up in swimming. Good to know he had a weakness.
He was also fast. In his autobiography, the Australian golfer, Brett Ogle, wrote about growing up in Goulburn and playing rugby league from the age of 7. He said that every year all of the teams in Goulburn would submit their fastest player, and a 100 metre dash would reveal the fastest over all. Ogle said, and I quote “it always came down to me and Michael Apps, a guy from St Patricks College. He was fast but I had his measure more often than not.”
Ogle went on to say he gave up contact sports at the age of 11 because he was too small and got sick of much bigger players running at him, something that never seemed to bother Appsy. But I’ll come back to that.
Anyway, while still at St Pats Michael played for the ACT schoolboys side getting his first taste of international rugby against both Ireland and Japan.
In 1982 he came to Canberra to study and joined the Australian National University Rugby club.
Unfortunately, the historical record is a bit hazy here. The club records show he played a total of 67 games for Uni, but only one game was recorded for that first year.
Anyway, we do know that he was selected for both NSW Country and NSW under 18s that same year.
By 1984, at the age of 20, he was captaining the University side, vice-captain of the ACT under 21 side that beat Qld at Ballymore and was selected for the Australian under 21 side to play a test against New Zealand as a curtain raiser to the Bledisloe cup game at the SCG.
This selection was controversial; especially in the rugby political stronghold of NSW as he beat their own David Knox into the side that went on to defeat New Zealand.
In 1985 he was elevated to ACT under 21 captain (still captaining the University side), while also making the next step to the ACT senior team who managed a win against the touring Fiji national side. He also toured the South Pacific as Vice-Captain of the Australian under 21 side, playing against Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Now apparently the Samoans have a tradition where the youngest son in each family is raised as a girl. On a night off in the capital Apia, a few of the Australian team wandered into a bar, that unbeknownst to them, was frequented exclusively by these “girls” who apparently took quite a shine to young Michael. Luckily his speed came in handy as he made a rapid exit back to the team hotel.
One of the highlights for provincial teams like the ACT in those amateur days was the chance to test yourself against touring international sides. In 1986, ACT beat Japan and then came up against a test-strength French side.
That afternoon, Appsy was lined up at 5/8 against Guy Laporte, who had led France to a Grand Slam in all four matches of that year’s Five-Nations Championship.
The Canberra Times rugby writer in those days was Michael Foster, a famous curmudgeon who found praise much more difficult to dole out than criticism. Nevertheless, Foster summed upped the game as follows;
“In a game in which courage was paramount, none epitomised it better than Michael Apps. The smallest man on the field, he cut down the huge prop Bernard Herraro with a fine tackle to deprive the French of a try in the first few minutes. It was the pattern of the day,”
The result was a famous 18-all draw.
Appsy’s last big international game for the ACT was in 1988 against Buck Shelford’s dominant All Blacks team in a fixture that took place at a sodden Seiffert oval in Queanbeyan
Alas this was to be no fairytale ending. Four minutes into the game, Appsy slipped in the mud while attempting a 22 drop out, the ball looped lamely off his boot straight to All Black flanker Zinzan Brook who then ran 25 metres untouched to score. Subsequently, the ACT held the All Blacks out from 6 successive 5 metre scrums. 5 of those were ZinZan picking up the ball at the back of the scrum and running straight at Appsy. He didn’t miss one of those tackles.
Obviously, given his size, or lack thereof, Appsy had to be very technically proficient to bring down the big men and this was something he was constantly working on. I remember walking into a post-match function one day while chatting to Angus Baker, who was about 6’2”, an extremely solid tighthead prop from Duntroon, he was also one of the ACT reps in that ’84 Australian 21s side. All of a sudden, mid-sentence, Angus just disappeared. I lowered my gaze and saw he was face down on the carpet, with Appsy wrapped around his ankles – always trying to perfect his technique.
Michael moved to Sydney for work in 1990 and had a brief stint with the Manly club before a snapped Achilles tendon ended his playing days.
In 2018 he was named as 5/8 in the Uni/North Owls All Time Team from 1938 – 2018. Not bad to be named as the best in your position spanning a period of 80 years across two clubs!
In later years we had a lot of fun travelling around the country going to Wallaby tests. The fun wasn’t usually due to results of the games, but enjoying the mateship of former team mates, while providing insightful analysis of team selections, game plans, referee performances and complaining how things weren’t like they were in our day.
Even through the questionable marketing ventures of the Pulver years and the lacklustre on-field performance of the Cheika years, Appsy was never down on the Wallabies as some of us were.
There are lots of stories people have provided to me that I didn’t have time to include today, I’m sure a lot of those will get an airing later on.
But I did want to mention one more thing. A few years ago Appsy and I went back to North oval to watch a Uni/Norths Owls game. Prominent in the clubhouse is an official photo of Appsy in his Australian jersey.
He confided that he had grown to dislike that photo, not because it was a permanent record of his pathetic attempt to grow a beard, but because to him, it came to represent unrealised potential.
Other members of that 1984 team had gone on to represent Australia at a senior level, as did some of his ACT teammates, and of course David Knox, the guy he beat for that under 21s test spot, successfully transitioned between the amateur and professional eras, playing for the Wallabies and Brumbies.
Michael explained he didn’t have any sense of regret. Just questions about whether he could have, or should have gone further.
The last time I saw Michael in person was at the Super Rugby Grand Final last year where he and Madonna graciously hosted a box for a few friends. It is testament to him that despite questioning his own significant rugby achievements, he maintained his love of the game throughout his life.
Appsy embraced rugby as he embraced life, with commitment, courage, enthusiasm and joy.
Cheers scrapper – have a blinder!