Rugby Union: Farewell to Smith the Lion-hearted

Click to follow
ALL WHO knew him as a player, as an administrator or as a friend have a special memory of Dr Douglas Smith, who died last week following a long illness. Perhaps nothing more completely captured the essence of the man than his arrival at Auckland airport with the 1971 Lions, the side he managed with such pride and distinction. The team had already played two matches in Australia en route to New Zealand in a well-meaning but ill-considered attempt by the four Home Unions to appease the Australian rugby public.

The tourists had lost their first match, against Queensland, just 24 hours after they had arrived jet- lagged in Brisbane, and had immediately been written off by the New Zealanders as being the worst Lions side in history. But with that irresistible mix of Caledonian sincerity and brazen cheek, Smith announced to the assembled media pack that the Lions would win two Tests, lose one and draw the other. The mocking laughter could be heard in Invercargill and the headlines the next day were scathing. The fact that it took a spectacular 50-yard drop goal, the first of his international career by JPR Williams, to turn outrageous speculation into stunning reality, merely showed that, among all his other virtues, Doug was blessed with his fair share of good fortune.

It had to be luck rather than good judgement which teamed him up with Carwyn James. It was the fusion of two very different characters which ignited the torch borne triumphantly by the 1971 Lions. James, academic and introverted, in conjunction with Smith, forthright and boisterously self-confident. The other remarkable fact about the alliance was that it was forged between two men who were not at the time members of their unions. Indeed the sadness for both in the aftermath of their still unequalled success in New Zealand, was that neither was welcomed into the fold on his return. James never did gain entry to the inner sanctum of the Welsh Rugby Union. For Smith, his election to the presidency of the SRU, albeit belatedly in 1986-87, was a source of immense pleasure and satisfaction.

Although never obsessively partisan in the support of his native country, Smith was a fierce advocate of the need to keep Scotland at the forefront of the world game, whether it was at Murrayfield or that Celtic corner of Richmond which was once home to London Scottish. He loathed professionalism, however, and latterly despaired of what was happening to his beloved Exiles.

Smith was a talented all-round sportsman having played football for Aberdeen as an amateur, cricket for Aberdeenshire and rugby for Scotland and the Lions, with whom he toured the Antipodes in 1950. It was there that he broke his arm, which thereafter presented him with a legitimate excuse for wearing a protective strapping with which to belabour opponents. He was, by all accounts, a fearsome sight in opposition.

It was greatly to Smith's credit, given his Scottish background and innate suspicion of organised coaching, that he gave James such latitude in New Zealand. But at the very outset of their association he recognised that James occupied a different planet when it came to the tactical and technical aspects of rugby, and once John Dawes, another gifted strategist, was confirmed as captain, Smith concluded, quite correctly, that his role lay in the day-to-day administration of the tour, media relations and team discipline.

This latter responsibility he discharged with a well-considered balance between a light touch and, when the occasion demanded it, heavy censure. When Sean Lynch, the loosest of Irish cannons, had, with the aid of a fire hose, transformed the first floor of the team hotel into something resembling the set of Titanic, the only thing which saved him from deportation was the fact that the Lions had lost both Test props in the infamous battle of Canterbury earlier in the tour. But Lynch, a contrite soul in the cold light of day, was left in no doubt as to who was boss.

A quarter of a century ago the Lions management team consisted of two men - the honorary manager and the honorary coach. The physiotherapists, dieticians, shrinks and surgeons who are part of the travelling circus nowadays would not have been tolerated. Smith treated many of the injuries himself, and the vision of his hypodermic needle which looked and felt like a screwdriver, aimed at my groin, haunts me still. His methods did, however, have a miraculously healing effect on some of his patients. Frank Laidlaw, the erstwhile Scottish hooker, who was a witness to my plight, overcame his leg strain with a completeness and rapidity evidenced by the dramatic alacrity with which he left the room and me to my fate.

Doug Smith was big enough to subordinate his extrovert tendencies to the needs of the team. He worked unstintingly to give his coach and his players the best possible conditions in which to do their jobs. When, two years ago, he attended the 25th reunion celebrations of the 1971 Lions, he was a very ill man. It was a monumental effort for him, but it was a measure of his popularity and the affection in which he was held by the players that every man jack came to pay their respects to the man described by Willie John McBride as the finest of all Lions managers.

Comments