Tom Smith on the British and Irish Lions’ chances

Tom Smith was a Lions starter in 1997 and 2001 and is now looking for a new coaching opportunity after stints with Edinburgh and Lyon. Picture: Getty
Tom Smith was a Lions starter in 1997 and 2001 and is now looking for a new coaching opportunity after stints with Edinburgh and Lyon. Picture: Getty
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SCOTLAND’S struggles in the professional era were underlined yesterday when hooker Fraser Brown found himself on the bench against the Springboks after playing most of the season on the flank for Heriot’s.

He has had exactly 44 minutes of professional rugby in his life. Almost worse than that is the realisation that, one week ahead of the Brisbane opener on the current Australian tour, it has been 12 long years since a Scot started a Test match for the British and Irish Lions.

Chris Cusiter, Gordon Bulloch and Ross Ford have all come off the bench but Tom Smith’s cap against the Wallabies in the 2001 Sydney decider was the last time a Scot was selected for the Lions’ run-on XV.

“That statistic gets rolled out a little too often,” concedes Smith. But it’s one record that the Scot is confident he should be rid of come Saturday when the phoney war Down Under ends. Smith believes that Scotland could be celebrating two starters, with another player on the substitutes’ bench.

Of the four Scots, Smith is tipping second row Richie Gray as the most likely to make the Lions’ Test XV. He says: “He’s been given plenty of game time to help get him up to speed as quickly as possible because Warren Gatland wants him sharp. Bringing him off at half time on Tuesday was a good sign and he is probably our main hope of a Test starter.”

Sean Maitland would also be squaring up to the Wallabies if Smith had his way. He says: “He is in a tough position. Leigh Halfpenny will be full-back, George North is a shoo-in on one wing if he’s fit but the other wing spot is wide open and I would pick Maitland ahead of Alex Cuthbert. He’s a solid, intelligent player who looks after the ball and Gatland knows him pretty well. He may need to be selected before Tommy Bowe comes back into the equation [from injury].”

On the bench, Smith expects Stuart Hogg’s versatility to get him the nod. “I think he has a good chance of making the squad after last Tuesday’s performance. He can play 10, 12, 13 at a pinch, wing and full-back. In fact, all the positions in the backs outside scrum-half,” adds Smith.

Recent arrival Ryan Grant is likely to be the one who misses out, with the Glasgow prop having been summoned due to injuries to Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins. Smith says: “I just hope he gets a decent crack at it because he was very unlucky to miss out on selection to begin with. Joining the squad late is difficult but once he gets into a rhythm his workrate comes through and his mobility serves him well.”

Smith himself was an ever-present in the Lions’ Test front row in two series, 1997 in South Africa and four years later in Australia, when the Lions won the first Test hands down but were pipped by the Aussies in the remaining two. Infamously, Scott Johnson, Scotland’s current coach, attended a Lions training session and noted the calls, so, when the tourists won an attacking lineout five metres from the Wallaby line with just minutes left on the clock, Justin Harrison wasn’t guessing when he rose to steal a Lions throw aimed at Martin Johnson.

“I do remember thinking that if we’d just won the ball and set up the maul then they were in trouble,” says a rueful Smith. “The rest is history, as they say.

“It’s about fine margins, you have to make the best of your opportunities. I think the big one [in 2001] was Melbourne. In the first half we were all over them, dominating, strong, and we let them get back into it. I think the Lions can struggle when it comes to the third, deciding Test. The injuries and the fatigue really mount up. You want to get the job done in Tests one and two.

“The difference between a Lions tour and every other tour is that every single player goes on that plane expecting to be given the opportunity to play for their place, even if you are up against Brian O’Driscoll. It’s not like a Scotland tour where someone is already in possession of the jersey. With the Lions it has to be different.

“Graham [Henry] was a very good manager and a very good coach but he possibly did not understand that dynamic of the Lions. And I think that Clive Woodward completely missed the point. You can’t have players, four weeks into the tour, having hardly touched a ball. You have to get guys on the field playing rugby.

“When this Lions Test team is announced obviously some players will be disappointed but at least they will all be able to say: ‘Well, I have had two starts and I’ve come off the bench once, so I’ve had the chance to show what I’ve got.’”

Smith is still looking for a chance to show what he can do as a coach after spending last season as an assistant at Lyon. The big-spending club failed to turn top dollar into the Top 14, missing out on promotion, and Smith has since parted ways with them. He had previously been at Edinburgh but he was frustrated by several things, not least an SRU director of rugby who had no previous experience of the game in Scotland.

“Every conversation I had with Graham Lowe started: ‘In New Zealand we did it this way’ and that was the extent of his knowledge,” is one of Smith’s kinder observations. “He was behind a lot of Edinburgh’s journeymen signings. Guys within the organisation could have done a better job, guys who knew Scottish rugby better.”

The influence of foreigners on Scottish rugby is a contentious issue but Smith is not against them per se. He would have offered Wayne Smith a blank cheque to become Scotland’s head coach and he insists that [Scotland’s Welsh forwards coach] Jonathan Humphreys and [Scotland’s Kiwi head-coach-in-waiting] Vern Cotter are two of the good guys.

But there are plenty of the other sort, tumbleweeds who arrive with a fanfare and slip out the back door a couple of years later. It’s a complex area, the foreign influence, and by commenting on it Smith insists that he isn’t fishing for an invitation to return to Murrayfield.

“Have we handed the keys of the castle over to another guy and said here you go, take Scottish rugby and do what you like for the next few years? Maybe? Maybe it’s the right decision. I don’t know. I’ve come full circle on this. There are good people in Scottish rugby, guys like John Jeffrey and others from that era. We have two Lions captains that we don’t use. You don’t have to have been a professional coach but you know Scottish rugby, you live in Scotland, you have a better crack at getting that balance between the clubs and the international team right and we know that, in ten years’ time, you are going to be living in Scotland and contributing. I don’t want to come over all nationalistic and say it’s got to be a Scottish bloke but there does come a point when you have to promote a few guys from within.”

As for the Lions, following big scores against weakened midweek opposition, there are those who believe they will, in future, have to adopt a similar schedule to Scotland’s compact tour of South Africa. Drop the extended squad, jettison the midweek games and jet in for a three-week, three-Test tour.

“They have to find a solution because for a group of players to arrive late on tour is not ideal,” says Smith. “If more players play in France then that knocks them back another week. It’s only once every four years. Look at the number of Lions supporters out there. Look at the economics of it and the impact it has on the local economy.

“I’m not sure it will change. I’d be really disappointed if it did. I think a Lions tour is unique and they’ll mess with it at their peril.”