Carl Friedrich Gauss was a German mathematician and child prodigy who, among other things, is credited with developing the Gaussian function – an algebraic notion which, when graphed, shows the characteristic shape we commonly know as the bell curve.
I was mentally grappling with the Gaussian function while lying on the hall floor of a modest hotel in North Sydney, last Saturday, locked out of my room shortly after getting home from a 50th birthday party.
It was the celebration of two undoubted kings of the centre of the Australian rugby bell curve, twin brothers Matthew and Charles Perrignon, aka Chilla and Snix.
Locked out I may have been, but at least it gave me time to contemplate the Perrignon phenomenon.
It is well documented that in Australia we’re overly fixated on the far right of the curve i.e. that tiny sliver of freakish athletic talent that constitutes the Wallabies. But the fact is that the vast majority of the momentum in rugby in Australia is generated by people in the bulging middle of Gauss’ statistical lump – those who are, like the Perrignons, widely known, and yet, largely unknown.
If there are two better networkers in Australian rugby than the Perrignon twins, then they’re managing to keep it suspiciously quiet. As Chilla’s daughter mentioned in her hilarious tribute to her father: “It is tiring going anywhere with him because you have to wait for him to talk to all the people he knows… and he knows everyone!”
I met Chilla and Snix on my first overseas rugby tour to the Hong Kong Tens in 1997, with the legendary Sydney Schooners. I warmed up tentatively for game one, blissfully naive about the peculiarities of tournament rugby in the far East.
No sooner were we lined up for our first on-field contest, than Chilla, aka Chillini, aka Commander Hilla, produced a shiny Boosey and Hawkes trumpet from the depths of his kit bag and gave us a pre-battle toot in the middle of a steamy Happy Valley rugby field. Our opponents, the Chinese Agricultural University, looked suitably bemused and we took advantage of the confusion to swarm over them.
Later in the evening, Snix, aka Snickoledes, aka Sammy The Nix, stood and called for attention in a packed Lama Island seafood restaurant, before regaling the assembled patrons with a penetrating and not-entirely-tuneless rendition of My Way. Or was it Old Man River? Whatever. Lama is a long boat trip.
Thus my introduction to two of the most connected people in Australian rugby, with an astonishing network which crosses all manner of blood-relations, former teammates, banking clients and Riverview connections. Over the years I have been party to an amazing array of conversations and beer chats with international rugby luminaries who all know the Perrignons and Saturday night was no different.
Standing at the bar was second-rower and brother Jim Perrignon, a Manly stalwart from the ’90s who was a teammate of Clive Woodward when he played club rugby for Manly in Australia. Later when Woodward began his coaching career with Henley in London’s South West Division two, he would call upon Perrignon and Manly teammate Rob Gallacher to play.
Together the three would lift Henley into Division One and eventually the national leagues, launching Woodward’s coaching career as he went on to win with London Irish and eventually secure the World Cup with England. Jim probably could be partly blamed for England’s success in 2003, although I chose not to mention it.
Nearby, matching (and possibly slightly exceeding) Perrignon for height, was current NSW Rugby board member Paul Timmins, who not only played about a thousand games of Suburban Rugby well into his 40s, but also was a handy off-spin bowler in his youth for the Australia Under-21 cricket team. Timmins was a stalwart of the Perrignon-led Sydney Schooners tours to all manner of Asian destinations and in fact represented Hong Kong as a rugby international.
As a guest of only average tallness, I was starting to feel like I was in an episode of Land Of The Giants and being joined for beers by former NSW Country and Australian Under-21 No.8 Hugh Williams didn’t help. Aficionados will remember Williams as a bruising schoolboy forward who grew into a bruising senior forward for Eastern Suburbs.
Incidentally, I was once on the field with Williams when he lined up the largest player on the opposition intending to tackle him. The player in question was of indeterminate Islander origin and weighed a conservative 130 kilograms. Williams himself was at least 115 kilograms at the time.
The hit was like irresistible force meeting immovable object and the noise of the impact was horrible, like a watermelon hitting concrete. Both players hit the ground, Hughie was knocked cold. The funny part was that this happened in the Sydney World Masters Games only a few years ago when he was nearing 40. Snix and Chilla’s mates all retain a compelling zest for rugby life.
Touring matches (at home or away) were bread and butter for Snickoledes and Chillini the Great, and their primary source of tour participants was the Old Ignatians Rugby Club.
The Perrignon club of choice was, in theory, a group of Riverview old boys, but in practice, a fairly eclectic collection of players from all points of the Perrignon social compass. Between 1995 and 2005 when the club was at its zenith, as the Kentwell Cup champions and Club Championship winners, it was all but impossible to find a player who hadn’t been somehow brought to the club by either Chilla or Snix. I once watched Telegraph chief rugby writer Iain Payten seal a grand final for a Snix-coached team with a grand 30-metre try.
Their method was as simple as it was hilarious. Get a player to the club to just play one game. Following that one game, ensure that the player got three best and fairest points, no matter how he actually played. And then fill him full of free beer and tell him what a great bloke he was for the rest of the night. “They always come back after that!” Snix once confided to me with a chuckle.
There was no problem with telling me the secret, as I had already fallen for it the previous season. A chat to Snix about a possible game of rugby one day ended up in getting drafted for “just the one” home game against Hunters Hill. Eighty minutes of middling involvement, three best and fairest points, and a dozen schooners later, I was hooked. Snix and Chilla had the knack alright.
Such recruiting meant that Perrignon-led touring efforts were always oversubscribed with quality players from all over the world. A vast network of contacts cultivated in Australia, Hong Kong and Chilla’s coaching stint with the New York Athletic Club meant that great players just kept turning up and doing amazing things.
Current Highlanders and new Japan coach Jamie Joseph ought to remember one of the Perrignons’ recruits, a diminutive surfing flanker from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Johnny Alford. Alford aka ‘The Fruiterer’ was on-field for the Perrignon-assembled Schooners as they battled the Jade Stamp Aliens, a team of semi-pros from Japan. The Aliens included former All Blacks Joseph, Stephen Bachop and Arran Pene, to name a few and the Schooners were doing it tough.
Just before half-time and with the Schooners incredibly leading, Joseph made a break down the sideline and looked certain to score, when a tiny blonde tyro came across in defence. As the crowd watched in horror, Alford simply threw himself into Joseph’s legs like a stick into the spokes of a bicycle wheel. The effect was much the same, as the big man crashed to earth with an awful finality.
The crowd roared their approval as Alford was brought to his senses on the sidelines with a bucket of cold beer to the tinny strains of Chilla’s Boosey and Hawkes playing a victory song.
There was no trumpeting on Saturday, but there were several old touring mates and several Wallabies as well – old schoolmate and Gordon teammate, Tony Dempsey; banking client Nick Farr-Jones; and work colleagues David Giffin and Rod Moore – all part of the upper end of the bell curve, but on this occasion simply present as cogs in the Perrignon machine.
From the middle of the curve, there were still some memorable identities. Russ Francis, a Northern Beaches boy known simply as ‘Mercedes’ because of his magnificent running style and rare pace; former Queensland Under-21 and GPS flyhalf Peter Nielsen, now looking more like a loosehead prop and about to fly to Hong Kong as coach of the inaugural Silver Fox Pups Juniors XV tour. Nick Garling, burly centre for the Schooners and the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club in Japan; Bernie Rorke, a devastating tackler for Wagga Ag College, NSW Country and Gordon; and several others too numerous to mention.
Author of the celebrated tome The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, talked about the power of connectors. He discussed how they usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional and economic circles, and how they make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles.
“They are the people who link us up with the world… people with a special gift for bringing the world together,” said Gladwell. “They are that handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances.”
Gladwell was obviously talking about Snix and Chilla. He probably knows them. He could have also probably referenced the six degrees of separation theory, although with Snix and Chilla it would have been more like two degrees.
And of course, this is the key to rugby. If not for the special connections it creates and fosters, it would be just like any other game. But there is something magic in the fellowship of rugby and it is people like Snix and Chilla that strengthen the bond beyond mere association.
For those of us who have become part of their network, our own networks have been enriched immeasurably, as has the whole centre of the rugby bell curve. For however much we might like to watch the athletic freaks who live on the right-hand sliver, for most of us, the centre bump is where we are at home. And it’s blokes like Chilla and Snix who make us feel like we belong there.
Happy Birthday, lads.