Saturday’s Heineken Cup Final marks a huge turn around in fortunes for one of Leicester Tigers’ brightest talents.
Having spent the last three seasons travelling to Heineken Cup, Guinness Premiership and EDF Energy Cup Finals in a largely social capacity, Matt Smith is set to play a much bigger role for the Murrayfield showdown with Leinster this weekend.
“The last few years, I’ve been on the non-playing squad bus that goes down to finals,” said Smith, who is almost certain to be in Leicester’s extended playing squad and quite possibly the matchday 22 for the highlight of the European calendar.
“It’s usually quite good fun on there so it’s going to be strange seeing it from the other side.
“I remember watching the Paris final (when Leicester beat Stade Français in 2001) and hearing plenty of stories about what a great day out it was for the Club. It’s a bit surreal now to be involved in something similar.”
Until the start of the current campaign, the 23-year-old utility back had made just seven first-team appearances following his senior debut against the Barbarians back in March 2006. In 2008/09, it has been a very different story.
Only international veterans Ben Kay and Geordan Murphy have spent more minutes on the pitch for Tigers this season, with Smith wearing Leicester colours on 30 occasions and playing in all bar one of the Club’s eight European fixtures.
The son of former Tigers captain and coach Ian ‘Dosser’ Smith, the centre cum wing cum full back was given an opportunity to stake a claim for a regular starting spot under previous coach Heyneke Meyer. Smith took full advantage of the opening and has since continued to be an important member of new head coach Richard Cockerill’s matchday squads.
To now be in the position of being involved in the Continent’s most prestigious fixture has come as a real surprise to Smith, although he admits that simply taking part in Saturday’s final will not be enough for a club with as proud a history as Leicester.
“You didn’t think about occasions like this too much when you start out as you’re just enjoying playing, but the further you get, you hope that one day you could be involved in that. The fact that it’s happened in my first full season of playing a few games for the Club means it’s happened in a bit of a hurry really.
“Heyneke showed a bit of faith in me at the beginning of the season when he started picking me. I played after Christmas and then I got injured and now I’m starting to get fit again. I’m just trying to get back into the team, which is difficult because everyone’s playing so well. But as long as we’re winning, everyone’s happy.
“Winning the Heineken Cup would mean everything. We’ve done well to get here but we can’t take too much for granted. It’s one thing winning the Guinness Premiership but most people would say that winning the Heineken Cup is an even bigger achievement. If we win this week it would be amazing.”