Obituary: Tom Smith: a giant of Scottish and Lions rugby

Understated character with an iron will, who was the prototype modern prop

Scotland and Lions legend Tom Smith presented the match ball ahead of Scpotland'sm Autumn Test match against South Africa last November. image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Scotland and Lions legend Tom Smith presented the match ball ahead of Scpotland'sm Autumn Test match against South Africa last November. image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

Thomas James Smith

  • Born 31st October 1971, London
  • Died 6th April  2022, Southern France, aged 50

IT MUST be something about the surname Smith. Speaking of his legendary Hibs’ team mate Gordon Smith, the late Lawrie Reilly said: “When Gordon was club captain – he never said much; he led by example and we followed, because we would have hated to have let him down.”

Tom Smith, who lost his battle with Stage Four Cancer on Wednesday, elicited the same response from his team mates. He was a quiet man, who, as the cliché has it: “Did his talking on the pitch.” But, while he set the bar so-high, his team mates gladly followed him, because they would have hated to have let him down.

He was born in London, but lost his English father when only six. He began his education at Emanuel School in the capital, before coming home, to the bleak and forbidding Rannoch School, in darkest Perthshire.


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Rannoch has a justified reputation as a tough school, isolated, with the sports fields often unplayable in the worst of winter. Here the young Smith honed the superb physique and fitness which was to be such a part of his mystique as an adult player.

From Rannoch, he went to Dundee High School FP, where he came under the wing of Danny Herrington, one of the legendary ‘Tilicoultry Troglodytes, a front-row which could have given even the famous Pontypool trio a run for their money.

As Smith admitted, twice a week, propping against Herrington in training: “I had my nose shoved up my own arse.” But, he learned from the former Scotland A cap and considered all that training ground pain to have made him the prop he became.

From Dundee High, he moved to Watsonians, where his displays in a very good Melrose-winning sevens squad persuaded a certain Jim Telfer to sit-up and take notice. Smith had played stand-off at school and he retained the handling skills from that position when he found his niche in the front row.

As Scottish Rugby went through the difficult birth pains of the switch from amateur to ‘open’ rugby, Tom Smith was one of the young players to benefit, playing in an Inter-District Championship-winning Caledonian Reds XV, before a full-time contract with Glasgow Caledonians later Glasgow Warriors.

An A cap against Australia in 1996 was followed, in 1997, with the first of an eventual 61 Scotland caps, against England in a Calcutta Cup drubbing at Twickenham.

However, in just three internationals in that Five Nations campaign, he did enough to convince Ian McGeechan that his fellow Lions coach, Telfer, had been correct – the laddie Smith had something and he was named in the Lions’ squad to tour South Africa.

Needless to say, the rugby media had him down as a “Dirt Tracker,” no way was Smith ready to face the awesome giants of the Springboks front row: Os du Randt, Naka Drotske and Adrian Garvey.

But, Telfer had other ideas. He reckoned Smith and the two Irishmen, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace, could get underneath the Bokke trio and take them to places they didn’t want to go – while also offering additional energy around the field.

The Springboks certainly steam-rolled the Lions pack in the first two scrums of the First Test, but, by the end of the game, it was clearly the Lions trio who were on top.

Some of the players from elsewhere hadn’t a clue who Smith was, but, by the end of the tour, the likes of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Leonard were singing his praises. On that tour, he established himself as the prototype for the modern, professional prop. He wasn’t particularly big, but, his power to weight ratio was off the chart, and he had handling and running skills beyond every other prop.

 

He would wear the Lions’ No 1 shirt in six straight Tests, in South Africa in 1997 and in Australia four years later, while he was an automatic choice for Scotland over the eight years of his international career, leading the side during the 2001 Autumn Internationals.

After that first Lions’ tour he was ‘hot property’. Brive enticed him away from Glasgow Warriors and, while he enjoyed the French life-style, a better offer from Northampton Saints took him to Franklins Gardens, where he became a legend over eight successful years with the club.

Then, on hanging-up his boots, he came back to Scotland, as forwards coach at Edinburgh, before the lure of France took him back there, as forwards coach at Lyon – he would remain living there for the rest of his life.

During his career, Tom Smith had had to overcome occasional epileptic fits. He seldom mentioned this, just, got on with things. It was the same story in 2019, when he was diagnosed with Stage Four Colonic Cancer. The diagnosis was almost certainly terminal, but, typically, Smith bore the news with the stoicism which had marked his career.

As Telfer said of him: “Tom was my kind of player, no fear and no bother.” That’s how he approached his illness too.

Late last year, he travelled to Murrayfield to accept induction into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame, and accompanied by wife Zoe and children Amelie, Angus and Teddy, he delivered the match ball for the Test against the South Africans. The full-house at the national stadium gave him a standing ovation. He was also in attendance at Scotland’s Calcutta Cup win over England at the start of the recent Six Nations.

Everyone hoped for a miracle, but, on Wednesday, the news came through, he had lost his brave battle against illness.

 

Smith’s great-grand-father Jack Bell had been one of the great Vale of Leven footballers of the late-Victorian era. He was first capped when with Dumbarton, but, on moving to Everton, he could not be picked for Scotland, who only capped amateurs. Then, when the SFA changed their rules to pick professionals, Bell was brought back to win an eventual ten caps.

He later played for Celtic, then had a spell in Canada, before retiring to coach at Preston North End, then run a successful cycle shop business on Merseyside. Amazing how the career of Bell was in a way mirrored by his great-grand-son.

Bell played in one of Scotland’s iconic wins over England, scoring the second goal in the 4-1 ‘Roseberry International’ victory of 1900. Smith was a key player in Scotland’s Five Nations win in 1999.

Scotland has a proud tradition of producing relatively small but immensely-strong loose-head props, who allied talents in the loose to great work in the tight: Hughie McLeod, Ian McLauchlan, David Sole to name but three. Tom Smith is worthy of his place alongside such stellar names. He was, by any measure, a legendary figure.


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About Matt Vallance 35 Articles
Matt is a former member of Cumnock Rugby Club's 'Mean Machine' - motto: "Well, we won the fight". He has written about some 60 sports in a long career, mainly spent freelancing for, amongst others: The Herald, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, Scotland on Sunday, the late-lamented Sunday Standard and just about every national paper. He survived a spell at the Paisley Daily Express, covering St Mirren and the Paisley Pirates every week. He now writes a lot of sporting obituaries, since he saw many of his subjects play. Opinionated, passionate and, as one Bill McMurtire once said: "The only Cumnock member (other than Mark Bennett) who can be let out without an escort". In his 70th year, Matt, known to many as: 'Snuff', still has a few noses to get up. Unfulfilled ambition - to live long enough to see Scotland beat the All Blacks.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the lovely article.

    Tom was one of my favourite players in that era. A year younger than myself and the real genesis of the new era in Scottish rugby. Nicknamed ‘Whisper’ in his days at Dundee I seem to remember.

    The article mentions the ‘Tillicoultry Troglodytes’ – Danny Herrington (also sadly lost to cancer), John Manson and Budgie Cairney. What a trip down memory lane on such a sad occasion.

  2. Lovely article. Well done. Just caught the tail end of his career. Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the half time goings on concerning Matt Williams.

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