Interview: Ian Smith, Scotland’s ‘cherubic’ full-back, on defeating the Springboks amid apartheid protests

Apologies if this puts you off your breakfast but Ian Smith being divested of the contents of his stomach is kind of crucial to the plot. It tells you he played in a different era for rugby when there was more time for fun. It illustrates how he wasn’t the most self-possessed fellow to ever pull on a dark blue jersey, probably on account of some observers thinking he was slow and fat and who felt compelled to ask: “Ian who?” But it also confirms how hard he chased his dream.
Ian Smith in full flight for Scotland against New South Wales in Australia. Picture: BirlinnLimited.Ian Smith in full flight for Scotland against New South Wales in Australia. Picture: BirlinnLimited.
Ian Smith in full flight for Scotland against New South Wales in Australia. Picture: BirlinnLimited.

“All I ever wanted to do was play full-back for Scotland,” says Smith, “and I have to apologise to my late wife for wanting it so desperately. I’m 75 years old, this is all a long time ago, but even now as I think back to my debut at Murrayfield the hairs on the back of my neck are standing to attention.”

Smith was that rare thing, an internationalist with “Army” in brackets after his name rather than a club. Stationed in Germany in the lead-up to his first cap, Captain ISG Smith of the Royal Army Dental Corps was required to undergo an initiation. At a regimental function, the youngest and newest officer wasn’t allowed to leave the table until the last guest had departed so he ended up drinking enough IPA to fill a landing craft, with inevitable consequences during the next day’s game. He threw up, prompting jeers and guffaws from the watching top brass.

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Is it any wonder we won the war? When Smith’s selection for Scotland was confirmed, a demonstration of his athleticism was organised for would-be Paras, where the gym tyrant ran our man into the ground. “I threw up again, and while the onlookers didn’t laugh they were definitely amused by my lack of fitness. I was brought down a peg by that NCO who felt I was getting a bit full of myself. He was absolutely right.”

Don’t worry, we’ll be leaving Technicolour yawns soon, right after Smith’s recollection from 6 December, 1969 of the Scotland team’s pre-match meal at Edinburgh’s Braid Hills Hotel: “I ordered a fillet steak but after two mouthfuls felt extremely queasy. I rushed to the loos where there was a line of men, pushed between two of them, and was sick all over their shoes. They were selectors! The very men who’d picked me in the face of much scepticism. I could feel their faith melting away. I crept back upstairs and managed two ice creams… ”

It is early evening just outside Hunstanton in Norfolk – “The only well-known town on England’s east coast where you see a sunset,” says Smith. He is still a dentist and has just shut the surgery attached to his home for the day. How come he is working at his age? “School fees. All my five went to Stowe in Buckinghamshire where currently you pay £35,000 a year.” Back in Edinburgh, ISG attended George Heriot’s School and he settles down to talk about becoming the seventh Herioter to play full-back for Scotland, the opposition: South 

I’ve been looking forward to this chat for a while, maybe 50 years. Smith’s first international as a player was mine as a fan. I had just started playing rugby for my school and here was a graduate from these Saturday morning encounters on lush fields under the tutelage of tough-love games masters. And what a game we’d both chosen! Rugby in defiance of anti-apartheid protests. Midnight marches on Princes Street, banners from a’ the airts. At the stadium, student-led insurrection, polis battling with longhairs. Absolute mayhem from start to finish, which was tremendously exciting for a 12-year-old boy ignorant of the politics. So what did Smith make of them?

“I’m not proud to say this but they rather passed me by,” he says. “I mean, I was aware the match had caused a stooshie from reading the papers. I had a university chum, Mike Douglas from Jamaica, who organised a game which was played in defiance of ours in which the poor fellow ended up breaking a leg. But I was too excited about winning my first cap for Scotland. I was too full of myself.”

His delirium was hardly surprising. He was the hero of the day, scoring all Scotland’s points in a rare 6-3 victory over the Springboks including a thrilling try in the dying minutes. “And who acclaimed me as I dived over the line? It wasn’t a packed terracing because both ends of Murrayfield had been emptied that day, presumably by order of the police so they could better control the crowd. So just half a dozen bobbies got the best view.”

Still, here was a player whose arrival on the international stage prompted astonishment given he’d been involved in 3rd XV rugby only ten days previously, who was rated “a full-back slower than your average prop” and who, at the end of his brief career, would be fingered as one of the five worst international selections of all time.

Your correspondent sneaked into Murrayfield half a century ago – at least into the schoolboys’ enclosure which was reserved for Edinburgh’s fee-paying academies, not the likes of my keelie institution – and I can’t help feeling that Smith did something similar.

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He relates these less than flattering notices with a winning line in self-deprecation. His achievements may have been modest – only eight caps – but he is immensely proud of them. “There have been something like 1,850 tries scored from the full-back position in international rugby and I got No 13.” Not only knowledgeable about full-back history, he also knows a bit about Russian history and, having just penned his memoirs, is dusting down an earlier attempt at a novel, about Russia’s Romanov dynasty, executed in a cellar in 1918.

There were four caps, too, for Hong Kong after he was posted to the former colony and since one came against Japan – in 1972 when they were coached by a failed kamikaze pilot, as if his story needed any more colour – Smith must stand as one of the first Scots to line up against our World Cup opponents. He is flying out to finally collect them next week.

“It’s nice to be speaking to The Scotsman,” he says, “because I would never have played for my country if it hadn’t been for Norman Mair.” Rugby correspondents exerted great power and influence in the 1960s and perhaps none more so than this paper’s press-box oracle. This is the same Mair, by the way, who in his despatches would unfailingly describe Smith as “chubby”, later softened by the addition of “cherubic”. The same Mair who put even more jitters up the new man in his match preview: “There are many lonely places in the world but none lonelier than the square yard of turf occupied by a full-back in his first international.” Full-backs were similar to football’s goalies in this respect, concluded Mair, who sincerely hoped ISG wouldn’t “do a Frank Haffey”.

Then Smith remembers another Mairism he omitted to put in his book: “Norman once wrote of my kicking that I was ‘more one-footed than Long John Silver’. He said of another fellow – a winger, so not me for once – that he was ‘as handless as a Middle Eastern thief’. You probably couldn’t get away with that now.

“I can’t really argue with him calling me chubby. Bill McLaren was slightly more polite – ‘well-nourished’. I’d got married in the April of 1969 and over the summer my weight ballooned. Maureen and I had inherited my parents’ refrigerator – still a luxury item – and I was eating a full fried breakfast every morning and drinking seven pints of full cream milk a day. I just loved milk and still do. In fact, I once drank a whole crate at school – 24 third-of-a-pint bottles! The secretary of the Army Rugby Union scolded me for being fat and unfit. He said: ‘You need to lose a lot of weight, and quickly, if you want to play for Scotland’. I’ve got that old telly programme Nationwide to thank for a low-carb diet but, do you know, my training didn’t consist of much more than running with my dog. That was rugby back then. It’s a whole lot different for Stuart Hogg who, by the way, I would love to meet before it gets too late. What a marvellous player!”

Maybe fitness levels since ’69 have been blown out of the park, as in all sports, but the desire to wear the thistle on the breast was just the same back then and perhaps, since amateurs weren’t paid, that bit greater. In Smith’s case this seems all the more remarkable when he opens up the holdall containing all his neuroses and phobias.

Fear, at first, of the masters at Heriot’s who forbade the wearing of underpants and would roar: “No try, Smith, I can see your vest! … Penalty to Blues. Smith, your socks are down. Where are the garters, boy?” Fear, at the end, of losing his place in the Scotland team, playing with an injury with dire consequences. And in between: fear of the high ball.

“I can remember when this started. I was 13, playing for the C1s, when I let a ball bounce behind our tryline, tried to fly-hack it and missed, and the opposition scored. In truth, I never really recovered from that. I developed a totally irrational fear that the same thing would happen again.”

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Wimbledon commentator Dan Maskell, inspecting ISG’s tennis at a school tournament, advised: “Tell Ian Smith to stick to rugby.” So he did, hero-worshipping Ken Scotland who was at the top of the school: “The finest player I ever saw. If Ken was in a crowd I’d touch his blazer as if he was a pop star.” He practised on his own, in a field near his home, sometimes being joined by a lad from George Watson’s College. They struck up a friendship and later at tumultuous Murrayfield his chum would spark the break leading to Smith’s winning score. This was Ian Robertson, recently retired as the voice of rugby on the radio.

Smith grew up in the capital’s Morningside. His father Bill, an engineer who designed hydro-electic power stations, always cleaned and polished his boots. “And I’m embarrassed to say that my mother Jean washed the laces so they were never anything but brilliant white.” At Edinburgh University he learned that the post of rugby club honorary secretary would get him a game with the 1st XV so he duly applied, although an admin error which upset England scrum-half Nigel Starmer-Smith left the Scot nursing a few bruises.

“We were guesting together in a game at Camberley to officially open something-or-other. I’d indicated I’d take a pass up the touchline only Nigel deliberately wafted the ball to me so I’d be smashed by the opposition pack. That was when he shouted: ‘Call me Spermers, you bastard!’

“Apparently a few years before when Oxford Uni came to play Edinburgh, and because I was secretary he assumed I was to blame, we’d listed him as ‘N. Spermer-Smith’. That explained why before the match he had a bunch of programmes and was scribbling on them like mad. And funnily enough I found an altered one just the other day.”

But hang on, this is a very modest pen-portrait being drawn here; Smith must have had something. He mentions the “miss-moves” devised at uni with John Frame who would be capped at centre, Smith rushing into the back-line and catching the opposition on the hop in a blissful analysis-free age. “No better try ever lit Murrayfield,” remarked Norman Mair of the one which downed the Springboks.

Smith may have been oblivious to the demos that day but he hasn’t forgotten the selectors visiting the changing-room just before kick-off. “The captain asked for silence for the chairman who said: ‘Gie’s us fire and f*****g fury!’ That was it.” The rallying cry in a later match was no more Churchillian: “Claw the c***s down!”

He crossed the whitewash again in his second appearance when Scotland opened the new decade against France. Next in the old Five Nations the team travelled to Cardiff when Smith was summoned to the hotel phone: “I believe you are playing for Scotland against Wales this afternoon. Well, your wife has just had a son.”

He tells another story against himself, how it wasn’t glory all the way against South Africa because he missed numerous penalties, which prompted groans from the crowd and demands for a change of kicker. “It got a bit uncomfortable for Maureen, which caused my father to shout: ‘This is Ian Smith’s wife. She is very pregnant, so can you please go easy!’ ”

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And Smith beats himself up over not being close by at the birth – dads in those days weren’t present during delivery – and quickly swanning off to Australia on tour. “A bad husband? Selfish in pursuit of my dream? I repeat: playing full-back for Scotland – yes, that lonely position – was the ultimate, although I admit that might sound a bit pathetic.” Sadly Maureen died suddenly 25 years ago, aged only 49. “She developed meningitis on the Friday and was gone by Sunday. We’d been sweethearts since we were 14, having met at tennis, but I annoyed her intensely with my rugby. She used to call off the wedding practically every week. Once she threw the engagement ring across a clubhouse floor and took up with a team-mate. But she was the most lovely lady.”

Smith later remarried, second wife Julie starting out as the nurse in his surgery. “She made me write the book after finding the scrapbooks kept by my father. After reading them she said: ‘I thought you said you weren’t very good?’ I maintain, though, that Dad selected only the favourable stuff.”

His short-lived tenure for Scotland ended with sadness – and tears – when he wouldn’t let go of the 
No 15 shirt despite not being fully fit in case he didn’t get it back. This was one of Murrayfield’s greatest games, Wales’ 19-18 victory won with John Taylor’s spiralling kick, and Smith admits: “I cost Scotland victory and probably the championship.”

Still, he helped Scotland hoist the Calcutta Cup, no mean feat, with the triumph the previous year being the perfect riposte to the sneering of English commentators which rained down on him like – these critics hoped – so many up-and-unders come the match. “I suffered three days of mental torture and couldn’t sleep for thinking about mistakes I’d made as a schoolboy,” he says. But ISG Smith didn’t drop the ball that day and, when you think about it, he may just have been the best cherubic, well-nourished, wooden-legged (but not really) full-back we’ve had.

l A Full-Back Slower Than Your Average Prop is published by 
Arena Sport, £17.99.