ON one level, A Full Back Slower Than Your Average Prop is the autobiography of one individual. In it, Ian Smith recalls his ups and downs on and off the rugby field, from his debut for the George Heriot’s School 36th XV in the early 1950s to his last games for the West Norfolk 2nds – taking in some eight Scotland caps along the way. But, as well as being the story of one man, it is also a document of a vanished way of life: the amateur era, a simpler, more spartan time in which the love of the game outweighed any other consideration.
As the title suggests, Smith is a self-deprecating narrator who insists he owed a lot of his success to good fortune and to being in the right place at the right time. Yet he is also an insightful writer, skilled at evoking a bittersweet nostalgia for people and seasons long since departed.
“Rugby is an incurable addiction,” he writes in his introductory chapter. “That’s why team-mates and foes of old have so much in common when given the chance to meet. They relive past glories, catastrophes, memories of matches won and lost that bind them together. Camaraderie may not be the best word to describe what you had, but that is what it was and still is.
“For me, it isn’t just the smell of liniment or the crack of studs on concrete that takes me back to my rugby-playing days, but also the smell of burning leaves. Burning leaves was the smell of autumn, which meant the rugby season, which I grew to love with a passion that was to totally consume me. Every autumn when I smell burning leaves I feel a heartache, a longing. I can close my eyes and I’m once again running on to a rugby pitch. I hate autumn now.”
The book was launched one evening last week at Goldenacre. Although, through a series of chance events, Smith only played once for Heriot’s FP, no other venue would have been appropriate. Not only did he graduate through the school teams from those lowly beginnings in the most junior side of all, he grew up with a keen awareness of the Heriot’s tradition of producing first-rate full-backs. More appropriately still, two other full-backs from the school who went on to play for their country were at the launch: Andy Irvine, who first represented Scotland in 1972, the year after Smith won the last of his caps; and Ken Scotland, an international from 1957 to 1965.
As he explained to The Offside Line before giving a reading from his book and answering questions from the audience, Smith idolised Scotland in his schooldays, and to this day credits him with being the inspiration behind his rugby career. “He was a god,” Smith explained. “Still is. He was just the complete rugby footballer. He could do everything.
“As a little boy I watched him play stand-off for the school, and he was a god then. We used to touch his blazer.
“When he got picked and played against France in 1957 at Stade de Colombes, he proceeded to score all of Scotland’s points. And suddenly I had this incredible ambition: ‘You can do the same’.
“And you never think for one second that kind of thing is going to happen. But it does – if you think about it long enough and hard enough, and get lucky, which I did.
“I was unbelievably lucky. I went to university at the time when Edinburgh University began to play the kind of rugby that the world adopted – miss-moves with the full-back coming into the line, for example – nobody was doing that, and nobody knew how to counter it.
“So suddenly you get thrust into the spotlight. We had a wonderful fly-half called Ray Newton who could pass the ball about 30 yards without spin-passing, and a leather ball too, and all the things fell into place. I left Scotland, went to Germany, came back, the best guys were injured or sick, and I got a chance for Combined Services against Scotland.
“I was really lucky. We lost, I think 26-12, and I got the 12. And suddenly I got picked.”
The good fortune that saw Smith turn out for Edinburgh University must have felt more like rejection at the time. He could have played for Heriot’s FP, of course, but was tactfully advised to ply his trade elsewhere.
“I wasn’t Goldenacre’s favourite son,” he explained. “Their suggestion to me was that I wasn’t going to be good enough for Heriot’s, I wasn’t going to be better than the 3rds, so they said to me ‘Look, go to the university, they’re crap but they’ve got a decent fixture list’ – little thinking that three years later we’d come back and beat Heriot’s 26-0. And I had to be signed in to the bar here, they were angry with me.”
They were happy enough to welcome Smith back last week, having apparently long since forgiven his role in that 26-0 defeat. He makes it back about once a year these days, but, after decades of living and working around the world as an Army dentist, has settled in Norwich.
He continues to watch rugby both live and on TV, preferring the former, lower-level game to Test matches. Unsurprisingly for a player whose favourite ploy, the miss move, was all about avoiding would-be tacklers, he deplores the pro game’s emphasis on bulldozing through defences.
“I hate it. I don’t like it at all. It’s brutality. To me they have wonderful skill levels, but I get no pleasure watching big men running into each other. It seems to me the game’s about running into space, not running into people.
“It’s just a different game. I wouldn’t want to be playing now, and I’m glad none of my sons plays. My youngest plays hockey.
“It’s professional. It’s not like it was. I couldn’t imagine getting up on a Monday and having to train and train and train. We had jobs.”