Interview: Tom Smith, hero of last Twickenham win, played basketball until he was 26

The hero of our last great storming of the home of English rugby is a shy, retiring fellow who does not even appear to have his own Wikipedia page. There is a Welsh Tom Smith, an American one, the Irish version spelt Smyth, the Australian model, the Tom Smith born in 1883 and of course the Scottish prop of more recent vintage, all of them meriting mention in the online encyclopedia for their skills with the egg.

Tom Smith with the Scotland cap he won at Twickenham in 1983.
Tom Smith with the Scotland cap he won at Twickenham in 1983.

But I cannot find an entry for the try-scorer from Twickenham 1983, so it is pleasing indeed to be sat in this Tom Smith’s front room in Tranent, East Lothian, and listening to his tall tale.

Tall because he’s 6ft 8ins. Tall because some bits of the story are fantastical, real Boy’s Own stuff. Such as: how he was first a footballer, entered by his team-mates in a “Who’s Scotland’s Tallest Goalie?” competition, which alerted basketball and brought about his first switch of sports. Such as: how he was a Scotland international at the slam-dunk until three men in suits turned up at a cup final to inquire: “Ever thought about playing rugby?”

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This Tom Smith, once of the second row, is 65 and a big cuddly bear with a gap-toothed smile – the consequence of a flying fist down in Wales – and when I call on him he’s in the middle of baking bread having just finished painting his home, top to bottom. “One of the advantages of being 6ft 8ins is that I don’t need to use ladders,” he says. “That’s just as well because I’m scared of heights. Do you know that I once fell off a 50ft ladder?” Really? “Aye, but I was only standing on the second rung.”

Smith quotes the gags of ’83 team-mate Jim Renwick, the pre-eminent laugh-a-minute funster of Scottish rugby’s amateur era, but he’s no slouch himself with the deadpan delivery, such as this conversation with his wife, Elaine, a few short weeks after his debut for Gala.

Him, tentatively: “I think I’m playing the All Blacks on Saturday.”

Her, disbelievingly: “What, the All Blacks?”

Him: “Aye, I think so.”

Smith, who only started playing rugby at the age of 26, tries to tell me he’s not even the most famous member of his household, son Christopher being something of a regular on TV game shows. “You can find him on YouTube but you’ll struggle to see my try against England there. His best success was The Cube where he won £50,000.” Meanwhile, daughter Alana was a discus-throwing protege of Scotland’s Commonwealth Games gold medallist Meg Ritchie, following the latter to America at 17 for some hot-housed Olympic training and later becoming a champion weightlifter.

But I’m not having it: this Tom Smith grabbed a lineout ball to score the clinching try at a place where, ever since, our Calcutta Cup hopes have been dashed, sometimes properly scudded. Let’s hear how he did it …

The tale begins in Macmerry, a couple of miles from Tranent, where Smith, the son of a motor mechanic, entered the trade himself. “That’s not an easy job when you’re 6ft 8ins,” he laughs. “A wee guy like Roy Laidlaw would be better suited to guddling about under bonnets.”

For fun he played the round ball game for his local pub, the Robin’s Neuk. “It was typical Sunday league, a couple of pints before the game. [Before?]. Being tall was an advantage and disadvantage for a keeper – it took me longer to get down for shots along the ground. Then a newspaper – the Daily Express, I think – launched the search for Scotland’s tallest goalie. The lads said: ‘You should enter, big man.’ Without me knowing it, they put my name forward. There was a photo of me in the paper and Dalkeith Saints saw it. ‘Would I like to play basketball?’ I didn’t know a thing about the sport but decided: ‘Ach, why not?’ Right away I loved it.”

He particularly loved games at the American 
military bases at Faslane on the Clyde and Edzell in Angus, challenging himself against guys from a strong basketball culture, and was soon winning the first of his 26 Scotland caps, away to Denmark in 1976. “I was named man-of-the-match. At least I think that’s what it says in the cutting in my scrapbook. It’s in Danish and I’ve aye meant to get it translated.” He also impressed in Sweden where they offered him the chance to turn professional but he thought he’d miss Tranent too much.

The highlight of his time at the hoop was a Scotland tour of American colleges. “Six weeks on a Greyhound bus: New York, Kentucky, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kansas. I saw the Rockies, visited Elvis’ house, ate proper hamburgers – an unbelievable trip. My garage was at Leith Docks. They wouldn’t give me the time off. ‘I’m going anyway,’ I said, ‘because I’ll never get to the States otherwise.’ That cost me my job although by the time I got back there was no garage – some petrol tankers were in for repair and it had exploded.”

The Saints’ big rivalry was with Boroughmuir. Our man’s last tussle with them, at Meadowbank in 1979, would end in defeat by a single point. “Then one of the guys said: ‘There’s three blokes want a word with you.’ I thought I was in trouble for something. They were from Gala, wanting me to try out for them. Rugby? Gala? That sounded quite far away.” But for a second time Smith decided: “Ach, why not?”

One of the men was Jim Aitken, the club captain, and by the time Twickenham came along he’d be the Scotland skipper as well. “What a bully!” Smith laughs. “Seriously, Jim was a great leader. Probably a better captain than he was a prop … should I be saying that? He took me under his wing and my first game was away to Ebbw Vale: a good crack on the bus down, I played pretty well and then a few beers. Basketball is non-contact, or it’s supposed to be, and suddenly I was playing ultra-contact sport. But I enjoyed the physicality.

“There was a lot of it at Gala. At training, 
tackle-bags weren’t used back then – we hit each other. PC [Peter] Brown – another Gala man who won at Twickenham [1971] – showed me how to jump in the lineouts and also how to survive in them because they were gey lawless places. But everyone in the team looked out for each other. I loved that about rugby right away. Aye there would be the odd punch-up. Jim might start things and possibly I would finish them!”

He also loved the social side, everyone singing Braw Braw Lads. “I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. In basketball, post-match was a cup of tea and a sandwich – apart from the games at the US bases when you could get cans of Budweiser out of a machine. But my first rugby dinner landed me in trouble with Elaine. She’d got her hair done and bought a new dress only to have to leave me at the do and drive all the way back to Tranent – I didn’t know they were men-only affairs.”

His selection for the South to play New Zealand in the autumn of 1979 caused a stir in the Borders where everyone likes to think they’re a rugby expert and they usually are. “They must have been thinking: ‘Who is this guy – he’s come from naewhere, oblivion.’ But, see, I had played against the All Blacks before, admittedly at basketball.” The tourists featuring Andy Haden, Stu Wilson and Murray Mexted won that game but Smith quickly progressed to the trials for the national team. “I was the only guy to be swapped at half-time from the whites to the blues, the Possibles to the Probables, and I think I might have been capped that season but I got a dunt on my knee.”

Then he had to wait. And wait and wait. “Eighteen stints on the substitutes’ bench and, in those days, you were only going to get on to the park if some poor sod broke a leg.” That must have been frustrating, I say. “Ach, not really. You knew you almost certainly wouldn’t be playing so at the pre-match meal – the day of the game, mind – I could tuck into prawn cocktail, fish, sirloin steak and jam sponge and custard while the XV were restricted to honey and toast.”

He was selected for a tour of France, quite an eye-opener. “It was brutal. Jim Telfer was in charge. Training was rucking for three hours solid. Jim would shout at Donald MacDonald, the No 8: ‘You’re soft, you’re a big jessie, toughen up!’ He shoved Donald and challenged him to hit back. Donald did and sent Jim flying. For a wee moment I wasn’t sure about rugby. That didn’t seem right.” But he persevered and then came his big chance.

Scotland in 1983 had lost all their previous games in the Five Nations and the Calcutta Cup was going to be a wooden-spoon decider. “The back five was completely re-jigged; it became four No 8s and me. I was fair chuffed to have got in the team at last, and quite a few folk from Tranent made the trip to Twickenham, Elaine and my family and some boys from Ross High FPs.

“Our bus got given a police escort which was pretty exciting. We parked up and walked the last bit to the stadium, past Judith Chalmers, Denis Thatcher and a lot of nobby folk in big cars. This wasn’t rugby as I knew it. Denis wished us good luck but I’m not sure he meant it.

“The atmosphere in the changing-room was 
low-key. Well, apart from Jim Aitken. Flames were shooting out of his nostrils as usual. He was a great motivator, each of us getting a wee pep talk. He slapped me on the back and said: ‘Big man, this is going to be easy!’

“Walking on to the pitch I wasn’t nervous, although I love the sound of bagpipes and when I heard someone in the crowd playing them I filled up. The teams were introduced to Princess Anne. Jim told her I was winning my first cap and she wished me luck. I tried to thank her but I’d taken my false teeth out and, what with the Tranent accent, I don’t think she heard me right.

“I got a good touch early on in the game, a couple of wee runs. England had Steve Bainbridge in their side, 6ft 10in, whose party-piece was jumping over a Mini. Nick Jeavons was supposed to own 24 pairs of boots. He wore his socks down so we could admire his legs, which he’d covered in oil – a flamin’ poser! Peter Winterbottom was nicknamed ‘Bungalow’ because he had nothing up top. He’d run through a brick wall, so they said, but we had David Leslie who’d run through two brick walls. Honestly, England were quite roly-poly and I wasn’t that impressed with them. I played in harder club games.”

In those days, the teams stayed on the park to sook their half-time oranges and on that afternoon two girl streakers sped past. “Apparently Bill McLaren said something in commentary like: ‘ … And of course the players won’t be paying them the slightest bit of attention.’ Of course we didn’t!”

Roy Laidlaw touched down for the Scots and Jim Renwick should have been awarded a penalty try, having been the victim of a tackle so late it belonged to the previous weekend. Then, with the men in dark blue leading, came Smith’s coup de grace, as they say in Tranent.

“Their winger [Tony Swift] ran the ball into touch a yard short of the line. There was David Leslie, Jim Calder, Iain Paxton, Iain Milne – the Bear – and me. Colin Deans was throwing and I gave him a wink. I moved backwards then forwards to lose my marker and caught the ball above the Bear’s head. I dived over the line, David shoving me to make sure. Jim gave me an almighty slap on the back and we knew we’d won. At the end, the Scots in the crowd ran onto the pitch, including Uncle Adrian who was in his 80s.”

The celebrations have passed into legend: how the Scots charged massive drinks bills to England captain John Scott’s hotel room; how, when the lobby pianist was finishing his shift, Aitken insisted he continue his musical accompaniment to the team sing-song into the wee small hours, because Wild Mountain Thyme is one of those tunes which always sounds better the 78th drunken time around.

When he got back to Tranent, Smith found out how the town celebrated his try. “This lad Rab Gillies was watching the game at home with some mates and he told them: ‘If big Tam scores a try the day I’ll fling my telly out the window.’ And he did!” By then working for a brewery, Smith was invited to officially open new pubs, politely declining. In the autumn of ’83 he played in Scotland’s 25-all draw with New Zealand but injury caused him to miss the following year’s Grand Slam. Although he played for Scotland just four times he’s proud to be a member of an exclusive club along with the late Pringle Fisher, double internationalists at basketball and rugby.

And the best bit about Twickenham ’83? It actually wasn’t the try, as he explains: “I’ll never forget walking into the changing-room and seeing all the individual bathtubs, big enough for a guy of 6ft 8ins. When you’re this tall you don’t have many baths in your life.

“In rugby at that time it was usually one communal hole in the floor, although at places like Royal High there were showers, always cold, and being only 4ft off the ground they were useless for the likes of me. So I enjoyed my soak at Twickenham. Players have ice baths now, don’t they? Stuff that! Mine was nice and warm and I sipped my beer and thought about what we’d just done … ”