Tom Smith: 'I played right after one seizure – not a good idea'
At 37, Tom Smith is the Premiership's oldest player. As the prop bows out, he tells Chris Hewett about living with epilepsy, and how to win on Lions tours
Saturday 25 April 2009
Even now, a dozen years on from the famous Lions victories in Cape Town and Durban, no one quite knows how Tom Smith – all 5ft 10in and 16st of him – brought to heel a Springbok front row that unleashed such hounds of hell as Os du Randt and Adrian Garvey. But then, what does anyone know of Tom Smith? How is it that this most singular of Londoners became the cornerstone of the last truly successful Scotland pack? What is the nature of the inner strength that allowed him to play rugby at the highest level in grim defiance of his epilepsy? Above all, how in God's name has he kept going so long?
"That last one is easy to answer," he said this week at Franklin's Gardens, where, if things work out as planned, he will play one last home game for Northampton – against Saracens in the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup next Friday night – after eight years of unstinting service. "The core skills of the prop forward do not include pace, which is the first thing a sportsman loses as he grows older. Some would argue that they don't include mental forethought either, so there's another bonus. In my position, you need brute strength and a highly-developed survival instinct. Those are things that don't disappear with youth.
"You find out about survival the hard way. When I joined my first senior club in Dundee, there was an old prop called Danny Herrington, a bit of a local legend, who basically shoved my head up my arse in training, twice a week every week for what seemed like years. Now, that's what you call a learning curve. Those training sessions were my classroom.
"Danny took the view that a young prop should have his share of bad experiences before trying to inflict them on other people." Deep in his 38th year, Smith is the oldest player in the Guinness Premiership. "Everyone keeps reminding me of that fact," he said. "I can't imagine why." He decided at the start of the season that come what may, he would retire at the end of it. "I'm glad I decided to hang on. This is a community club, a family club, and the supporters have been wonderful to me. To have been a part of a team playing some good rugby at a high level, especially here at the Gardens, has been very rewarding."
Born to a Scottish mother (his English father died when he was six) and given a boarder's education at a school on the banks of Loch Rannoch – "Absolutely the middle of nowhere" – he reached the East Midlands in a roundabout way. By the time of his arrival, he was ranked among the best two or three loose heads in the world, having dramatically expanded the skill-set associated with propping and played six consecutive Tests for the Lions.
Not that the Lions registered with him in the early days. "I remember when they announced the tour party in '97 – or rather, I remember not knowing they were making the announcement, if that makes sense," he said. "I just didn't realise it was happening, and it was only when someone said, 'Oh, by the way, they've picked you for the South Africa tour', that I gave it a thought. I was pretty naïve back then. I knew what the Lions were, of course, but I don't think I understood for a moment what it meant to be chosen.
"I'd only toured once before, with Scotland to New Zealand as an uncapped player the previous year. In South Africa, I was suddenly in a different world – greeting ceremonies at airports, receptions at the High Commissioner's place, rooms in the grandest hotels. It was quite a jolt for a young player who'd only known a Travelodge on the outskirts of Hamilton. When did I first think I might go close to the Test team?
"Well, the Lions scrum had struggled against Western Province, and that was followed by defeat against Northern Transvaal the following weekend. I didn't play in either game. Instead, I was picked for Mpumalanga in midweek, where we won by 60 points. Sometimes, your star rises when you're not involved. I had a bit of luck, because those fixtures in Cape Town and Pretoria were good ones to miss.
"Mind you, the Mpumalanga match was pretty unpleasant. We knew they'd be tough, but we didn't expect them to live up to their reputation in quite the way they did. Poor Doddie Weir was kicked out of the tour in a really brutal fashion, and I'll never forget the Mpumalanga manager making a dreadful speech at the reception, saying that 'these things happen in rugby'. Not in my book, they don't. Rugby is about respect, about lines you never cross. The business with Doddie, the speech, the whole day... shocking."
There were one or two interesting moments on the following tour, to Australia in 2001, but Smith, older and wiser by then, was more alarmed by some of the Lions' internal issues. "In South Africa, we couldn't have been managed better. Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan understood the dynamics. Under Graham Henry in Australia, there was a different atmosphere. He made it pretty clear to people right from the start that they weren't in his thinking for the big games, and that led directly to all the off-the-field stuff, the niggles and tensions. I can remember us being in camp and seeing two teams written down side by side, one of them obviously stronger than the other. It was one of those, 'Hello, what's all this about?' moments. You can't run a Lions tour on that basis."
A second successive Lions victory would have been quite a triumph, but it would also have been comfortably outweighed by Smith's own, profoundly personal victory over the condition that his afflicted him for almost two decades. "I've been suffering from epileptic seizures – Grand Mals, they call them – since I was 18," he said. "Until three years ago, the attacks always happened in my sleep. Then, three years ago, I had a waking attack, which meant I had to forfeit my driving licence for 12 months. Three weeks after getting it back, I had another one. Another year off the road. As a result, I've spent a lot of time on a bike, which I'm sure has done me good. All the same, it's a bit of a pain.
"I've had to be careful not to return to rugby too quickly after an attack, because the short-term memory loss can be very acute. I played a Calcutta Cup match against England after having a seizure on the day of the game, and believe me, it wasn't the best idea I ever had. It certainly wasn't my best performance for Scotland. But I consider myself fortunate to have had such a long career in professional sport in spite of my problem, and I talk of it openly because I want other sufferers to know that epilepsy doesn't have to be a barrier to achievement. I've been involved with a couple of excellent charities for a while now and I intend to continue working with them."
And so an unusual, not to say remarkable, rugby career reaches its conclusion. Smith plays the last of his Premiership matches at Sale this afternoon, and if Northampton prevail in next week's cup tie, there will be one final fling on the penultimate weekend in May. Nothing would be more appropriate. If the similarly diminutive Ian McLauchlan, his great predecessor in the Scotland team, luxuriated in the nickname of "Mighty Mouse", Smith has long been renowned for being as quiet as one. Yet rarely has one of rugby's silent types shown such strength, either of body or of character. One of the modern titans? Without question.
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