Had Matt Smith followed in the footsteps of a family member from generations past he would be playing football right now. Instead, the 21-year-old Glasgow Warriors flanker opted for rugby – precisely because the camaraderie with team-mates made it feel more like a family environment.
Alex Smith played for Rangers and Scotland, and Matt’s parents still have memorabilia from that illustrious career. The example of his ancestor was enough to encourage him to try football at school in Stirling, but now the example he hopes to follow is that of his rugby-playing elder sister Hannah, who plays in the centre or back row for Scotland.
“He was my great-great-grandfather,” Smith said yesterday after signing a new two-year deal with the Warriors which ties him to Scotstoun until May 2020. “I never met him, but we’ve got his Scotland caps and a Scotland jersey in the house, and a clock he won at Rangers.
“I tried football in primary six for a year, but it’s not like a family. You get a lot of abuse in football now and I wasn’t keen for that. Football’s obviously still a team, but there’s a lot of abuse in it and it’s too critical. I like encouragement over abuse. [In football you get abuse from] coaches, parents, other players – other players are the worst.
“Whereas rugby is just more of a family. Everyone sticks up for each other and there’s a real close bond.”
Hannah is actually four years older than Matt, but she followed him into the sport, as he explained. Having played for Scotland Under-20s last year, his next milestone will be if he emulates her and wins a full cap – although for the time being he is simply concentrating on the fight for a regular place in Dave Rennie’s matchday squad.
“She joined Stirling County women when I was already playing there. She gave it a bash and it turns out she’s really good at it. She’s smashing it right now: I’m so proud of her. She’s a centre: she’s not too happy about playing in the back row but I think she’s going to get stuck there.”
Competition is fierce at the Warriors when it comes to winning a place in the back row, and not only when the team’s current Scotland internationals are available. Even when the likes of Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley are unavailable on Six Nations duty, the squad still has a wealth of experience to draw on in players such as Callum Gibbins and Chris Fusaro, not to mention another extremely promising young player in Matt Fagerson.
Smith has therefore been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities he has already had during this season, and not only in the pre-season friendlies. And he has also been impressed by the support he has received from Gibbins, both when the New Zealander has been sidelined with injury and when he has been next to him on the field.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said of the season so far. “I’ve been given a good opportunity, and I’ve felt I’ve taken it well, so hopefully a few more seasons to come.
“I wasn’t expecting any of this. It was quite fortunate for me that Cully [Gibbins] was struggling – that gave me my shot and I took it well. I’ve managed to get a few games under my belt.
“He helps me with everything. We talk through our games together. He gives me little pointers when he’s watching my games, he’s always wishing me good look before a game, he’s a real good mentor to have. I’m just stealing it all just now.”
Warriors assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys is confident that Smith will continue to improve as he grows in experience. “We’ve been really impressed with Matt,” he said. “He’s mobile and aggressive and plays the game the way we want to play it. He has the potential to be outstanding and we’re looking forward to watching him develop over the next two years.”
Smith should certainly be in contention for a place in Glasgow’s starting line-up for the home Pro14 game against the Free State Cheetahs tomorrow night. Although they underperformed collectively in last week’s 15-15 draw at the Dragons, the Warriors still have a 12-point lead Conference B as they head towards a home semi-final in the play-offs, and will be favourites to complete the double over the South Africans after winning in Bloemfontein earlier in the season. Rennie will announce his squad for the game today.