We don’t really know just what props do in the scrum. We see only the result – dominance or subjection – but can’t tell why this is so. Nevertheless, we have a certain feeling for the breed recognising them as the doughty warriors of the game. Among these admired warriors, none ranked higher than Tom Smith, who died this week at a the horribly early age of 50.
There has been a long line of great players who wore the No 1 Scotland jersey, dating in my time from Hawick’s Hugh McLeod and the Fife farmer David Rollo, both of whom in their less specialised day were equally at home on the other side of the front row. Then in the 1970s came Ian McLauchlan, like Smith later, a victorious Lion, in his case in New Zealand in 1971. McLauchlan captained Scotland at a time when we had a good team. So did Gala’s Jim Aitken, not perhaps a prop with the technical skill of McLauchlan and Smith, but one who lifted the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham in 1983 and lead Scotland to the Grand Slam the following year.
Great front-row men make great captains because they are players who never take a backward step and always lead by example. The next to do so was David Sole, another Grand Slam winner, another Lion.
And then came Smith. His rise was less heralded than others’. His school, Rannoch, was hardly a great rugby nursery. He then played first for Dundee HSFP and the North-Midlands, then for Watsonians. It is said that it was his play in a Watsonian squad that won the Melrose Sevens in 1996 which alerted Jim Telfer to the excellence of his all-round game, and led him to tell Ian McGeechan that this was a man the Lions needed in South Africa. I suspect there is a bit of exaggeration in this story, and that Telfer had already marked him as one for the tour.
Be that as it may, it wasn’t till 1997, a few months before that Lions tour, that Smith replaced the much-capped David Hilton in the Scotland scrum. Hs first match was a heavy defeat against England at Twickenham. There was some surprise when he was selected for the Lions tour and it was generally expected, even, I think, here in Scotland, that he would be understudy to Leicester’s formidable and craggy Graham Rowntree. McGeechan and Telfer opted however for a front row of Smith and the two Irishmen Keith Wood and Paul Wallace, all comparatively small and capable of scrummaging lower than the huge and formidable Springbok trio
That tour made Smith’s reputation. After it his remarkable ability was never in doubt. What even those of us incapable of reading the mysteries of the front row of the scrum soon came to realize was that Smith also had handling and running skills of a midfield back. He was a beautiful passer of the ball, timing accurate passes better than most who played in the centre for Scotland in his time.
He toured with the Lions again in 2001, playing all three Tests against Australia and has a claim – which he would never have made himself – to having been Scotland’s outstanding Lion. He had also shone in the Scotland team which won the last Five Nations title in 1999, and all in all it was sad that his last years in the Scotland team should have been disappointing. Like others of great ability – Chris Paterson and Simon Taylor, for example – he was one of a side not short of talent which suffered from the incompetent and confusing coaching of McGeechan’s Australian successor, Matt Williams.
Admired, even revered, Tom Smith was a very great rugby player and a man of grace and courage, one I never heard anyone say a bad word about. He has gone cruelly early, but the memories he leaves shine bright.