Lion-hearted Tom Smith still roaring

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Tom Smith on 1997 Tour

Tom Smith has just come in from his garage. It’s a winter’s day and even in the idyllic corner of south-west France where the former British & Irish Lion now calls home, the temperature is biting.

“It’s out of the sun and there’s no insulation, no heating, no nothing in there,” he says. “It’s absolutely Baltic.”

The Scot, diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer 16 months ago that had spread to his liver and brain, has been on his exercise bike, pedaling away to try to keep body and mind healthy.

The physical effort might be a far cry from the white heat of a Lions Test match in South Africa, but when you consider that towards the end of 2019, Smith potentially only had a few weeks to live, this represents quite a comeback in medical terms.

“I’ve been trying to do 40 minutes a day, which is proving challenging, mentally,” he says. “I’m not setting any records, but it is part of the treatment. I’ve got to stay as active as possible.

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“A lot of people are dealing with what I am at the moment – being stuck at home – and you’ve just got to make the best of it. Exercise is important in staying positive and in the right state of mind.”

‘At the beginning it was pretty grim’

If plenty of us can relate to what has felt like a perpetual state of confinement these past months, few can appreciate exactly what Smith, 49, has been through to get to this point.

He still requires chemotherapy every fortnight – a day in hospital, followed by two days at home attached to a medical pump which intravenously propels the medicine around his body.

But his latest scan was positive, the cancer is regarded as stable, and he can now look forward with a degree of optimism.

“The treatment’s been going well,” he says. “I have to continue chemotherapy for the long term, potentially forever, just to keep it under control.

Tom Smith

“At the beginning it was pretty grim. We were talking about weeks maybe, if the chemo didn’t work. It was quite serious. The cancer markers were very high, and they had to get on top of it.

“There was lots of chemo and it took pretty much a whole day, whereas now it is about four or five hours in hospital and then I head home. It is very different, so hopefully it will continue to improve.

“The effects have gradually got less and less in terms of the impact on my life and how I feel. I’m a bit weary afterwards but all in all, it has been positive and I am in a really good place.”

The quiet determination and strength of character that underpinned Smith’s stellar career now reveals itself in his desire to share his experience in the hope of helping others avoid the distress he, his wife Zoe and their three children have been through.

Smith is now an ambassador for 40tude, a colon cancer charity which aims to raise awareness and funds for research into the UK’s second biggest killer for cancer, and the biggest among smokers.

“One of the big things for me was awareness,” Smith says. “I did have some symptoms that, had I been more self-aware, with what to look out for, I might have gone and got treatment a lot sooner.

“It is very unpleasant and not often talked about, but the symptoms are quite straightforward: abdominal pain, blood in your stool. If you’re getting these, then get yourself checked out. It avoids a lot of stress. The earlier you get treatment, the easier the solution potentially.”

‘You could play a different kind of game with Tom in the team’

Smith remains the last Scot to start a Lions Test, 20 years after his final one against Australia in Sydney, his sixth in a row across the 1997 and 2001 Tours.

His big breakthrough came in South Africa in ’97, when he overtook more experienced rivals to play a major role in a stunning series win, the first of the professional era.

Jim Telfer, the revered coach of the Lions forwards on that expedition, was a long-time admirer, having first spotted Smith playing for Dundee High School FP in a sevens tournament in Hawick.

Telfer was coach of Melrose – then the dominant club side in Scotland – at the time and keen to bring Smith to the Borders, but the dynamic front-rower moved to Watsonians instead and collected a prestigious Melrose Sevens winners medal in 1996.

Tom Smith in action

“At the time they were trying to convert him to hooker, because they didn’t think he would be big enough or strong enough or heavy enough to be an international prop,” Telfer recalls. “But he stuck at loosehead and for his shape and size, he was perfect.

“He was a rugby player first and a prop second. He was never compromised when he had the ball in his hands. He could move it quickly or take the player on or hold it up. His skill was the thing I remember with Tom. You could play a different kind of game when he was in the team.

“He could be a link player but was still a solid servant in the scrums and lineouts. He was always a very good scrummager – he was the ideal shape because he had the bulk as well.”

Nevertheless, Telfer admits he and Lions head coach Ian McGeechan took “a bit of a punt” when selecting Smith – who 18 months earlier had been turning out for second-tier Dundee HSFP’s second team – for the Lions after just three caps for Scotland in the 1997 Five Nations.

“We realised we needed different types of players to take on the Springboks,” Telfer explains. “We had to be a bit cleverer than just trying to take them on head-on. Tom and (Ireland tighthead prop) Paul Wallace were ideal for that. Paul was a rugby player as well. When you have got eight rugby players in your pack, you can do a lot more than with six rugby players and a couple of dummies.

“Tom and Paul fitted in very well with the way we wanted to play – fast, top-of-the-ground stuff, keeping the ball moving, running at spaces.”

Smith admits at the start of the 1996-97 season, he had “no expectation” he would be going on a Lions Tour and was “blissfully ignorant” of the tourists’ place in the rugby firmament. “In many ways that is what makes it so special,” he says. “You can come from anywhere.”

‘It was daunting, but in a good way’

But was it not hard for such a softly-spoken, private individual to be thrust into an environment full of larger-than-life extroverts such as John Bentley, Scott Gibbs, Keith Wood and Lawrence Dallaglio?

“Confidence is not necessarily articulated by speaking,” says Smith, revealingly. “I was confident in myself that I had worked hard for several years to put myself in that position.

“I don’t think there is a single player who arrives at the hotel on day one of a Lions Tour and isn’t daunted by the challenge and the faces around them. I think that’s part of what makes it different and special. These are guys you have been battling and fighting with for your country.

“It was daunting, but in a good way. You are out of your comfort zone and it’s something new. You get to discover what you are capable of in a different environment, which is really important.”

Smith, then 25, was picked for the opening Tour match – an imperfect but encouraging five-try, 39-11 win over Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth. He sat out the next two, and they proved good ones to miss: an unconvincing 18-14 win over an unheralded Border side in a sodden East London and an alarmingly poor scrummaging display in a 38-21 win over Western Province in Cape Town.

After three matches at sea level, the Lions moved to the rarefied air of the high veldt for a midweek game against a Mpumalanga side who had not lost at home for several years and clearly fancied their chances of scalping the Lions.

It was here, in Witbank, that Smith’s stunning rise really took off. If the Lions’ 64-14 victory is remembered for the brutal Tour-ending injury suffered by his compatriot and friend Doddie Weir, the dynamic ball-handling and support play from Smith – promptly hailed as the “new David Sole” – and Wallace, allied to a solid scrum, offered an enticing template for the impending Test series.

“There is a reality about a Lions tour,” he reflects. “There will generally be a slightly below-par performance in the first three or four games. It is not necessarily down to one individual. You might have had a good game but if you are part of a bad team performance, you have been in the wrong place at the wrong time unfortunately.

“Fortunately, I was part of the Mpumalanga match. We played pretty well and beat them quite convincingly. I think that changed perceptions and built up a bit of momentum.”

Tom Smith

Smith also missed the Lions’ only defeat to provincial opposition in their following match, a 35-30 loss to Northern Transvaal that dynamited the Test prospects of all bar captain Martin Johnson among an all-English front five on duty at the sharp end.

The Scot subsequently started an important midweek win over Gauteng Lions at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park – memorable for Bentley’s stunning solo try – and an outstanding 42-12 win over the Sharks – then South Africa’s pre-eminent Super Rugby outfit – in Durban a week before the first Test.

‘That was just nerve-tingling’

Smith had passed every Test audition with flying colours, even emerging intact from Telfer’s legendary scrummaging sessions.

“Some of them were pretty demanding,” he recalls with typical under-statement. “Jim had a couple of sit-downs with the forwards and talked about how we had to rise physically to the challenge. This was mid-tour, before the Tests. It was quite honest; you’d never accuse Jim of not being honest.

“He often doesn’t get credit for his approachability and intelligence. Jim is a very good communicator. He is not a person you fear, just someone you respect. I think he was at the top of his game as a coach on that Tour.”

Most memorably, perhaps, in delivering his famous ‘Everest’ speech to the Lions pack before the first Test at Cape Town’s Newlands.

“That was just nerve-tingling,” Smith says. “Everybody walked out of that meeting in stunned silence, just realizing the enormity of what the challenge was, but also with the confidence of knowing it was achievable, which is probably what he wanted to achieve.”

Questions were raised in the build-up about the comparative sizes of the two front rows. Smith, 5ft 10in and 235lb (16st 11lb), was up against the 6ft 3in, 256 lb (18st 4lb) Adrian Garvey – “a huge guy but not a great scrummager” according to Telfer. On the tighthead, Wallace – 6ft 1in and 242lb (17st 4lb) – would square up to the 6ft 3in, 20-stone chunk of South African beef that was Os du Randt.

“We decided Tom could get underneath Garvey and make it awkward for him,” Telfer said. “It was the same on the other side with Du Randt, who was a big animal as well. Keith Wood wasn’t the lowest hooker we had but he would get low enough to get to the height that Tom and Paul wanted.”

If the Lions wanted to neuter a perceived South African strength, the tactic was not an instant hit.

“The first couple of scrums we went back about 10m in total,” Smith recalls. “But we found our feet slowly but surely. I remember at the end of the first Test feeling we had become stronger and more dominant. I think that was partly fitness and partly togetherness and unity. You don’t put that much work in on the scrum machine without knowing that when the chips are really down, all eight players are buying in. It felt like we finished the stronger team.”

Tom Smith on 1997 Tour

From 16-12 up after 50 minutes, South Africa failed to score another point. Neil Jenkins’ fifth penalty brought the Lions to within a point before Matt Dawson’s nonchalant solo try put the tourists in front with seven minutes left and Alan Tait’s gleeful finish put extra gloss on a stunning victory.

Cape Town was duly painted red. “It was a different era in rugby,” Smith says. “The game had gone professional, but it retained some of the amateur values. A Lions Tour always seems to retain that easy mixing between players and supporters. You go out and celebrate and enjoy it with them.”

‘The Springboks wanted to steamroller us’

Despite inflicting a spectacular blow to the world champions’ dented pride, the Lions’ job was only half-done.

“Something Geech and Jim had stressed at the outset was if you get to a deciding Test it is very hard to win with the collateral damage – the fatigue and injuries and everything. You need to get the job done inside two Tests. Next morning it was back to work. There was a midweek game so everybody was up and training with the midweek team. It’s the kind of thing that shows the spirit of the Lions.”

That indomitable spirit was never more apparent than in the second Test a week later in Durban, a monumental backs-against-the-wall effort that made legends of those in red that day. Out-scored three tries to nil, the Lions emerged 18-15 victors after Jeremy Guscott’s dramatic late drop-goal.

“Physically, the Springboks were not happy and wanted to steamroller us,” Smith recalls. “It passed in a bit of a blur actually. It was just them attacking us again and again and again. These are the finest of margins. I remember Neil Jenkins keeping us in it with his fantastic goalkicking.

“If you looked at the stats of the game, I can’t imagine we featured too much in the attack and possession stats. I guess that is where the defensive organisation we talked about at the beginning of the Tour – Geech emphasized how defence can actually be a weapon – came in. Defence is not just about organization; it embodies the attitude and commitment of the team.”

Jeremy Guscott drop goal

A remarkable series victory was duly celebrated in some style, if not sartorially. Smith grins at the memory of Rob Wainwright, the Scotland flanker who played a sterling role in the midweek side and started the final Test, ripping the sleeves off everyone’s shirts as they celebrated in a Durban bar.

“It was very special,” says Smith. “I’ve met supporters who were there in the bar that night. “Those days don’t come along too often. They are special for a reason. There was a huge amount of relief. Before the Tour, expectations weren’t that high and there was some doubt about the Lions’ place in professional rugby, so it was nice as a group to lay the foundations for the rest to follow.”

The Tour also developed lasting friendships that 23 years later played a key role in the support network that has kept Smith going through the darkest of dark times.

“I’ve been very fortunate, with my change in circumstances, how much support I’ve had – friends and former colleagues just staying in touch, picking up the phone,” he adds. “The reality is when you get a diagnosis like I did you are looking down at an abyss and you’re not sure what the next step is. I am very fortunate the rugby community helped out.

“It’s one of those things that Geech highlighted in one of his pre-match speeches in ’97. He talked about when you see each other in 20 years’ time, you’ll know. It was quite an emotional speech and everybody came out with the hairs on the back of their neck standing up.

“You don’t truly understand what that means until 20 years later. Geech was absolutely right. You are Lions together and it retains that specialness.”

Lion number 668 is still very much with us, and still roaring.

Tom Smith is an ambassador for 40tude, a colon cancer charity. To find out more, go to 40tude.org.uk

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