Smith free from club pressures

David Llewellyn on rugby's day for the amateur: the County Championship final
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The Independent Online
Nothing symbolises more perfectly the state of the union than today's big match at Twickenham - the CIS County Championship final between Gloucestershire and the holders, Warwickshire. The counties have been the bedrock of the Rugby Football Union in its 120 years. When, some nine years ago, the RFU decided the emphasis of the modern game should shift to the clubs and the Courage League was born, the county championship slipped meekly into the clubs' shadow.

The crowds, too, have followed the clubs. The Pilkington Cup final is a 75,000 sell-out; in contrast, when the 30 players trot out, unpaid, at Twickenham this afternoon the cheers of 5,000 paying customers and 8,000 complimentary ticket holders will echo thinly around the stands.

Few players want to jeopardise any chance, however remote, of senior representative honours by playing in the RFU's dodo of a competition, so the County Championship has been devalued. There is no contest when it comes down to club v county on the field. But off the field it is a different matter. There the counties, albeit temporarily, hold sway after electing a champion for their cause, the resolute Cliff Brittle. It has delayed to the brink of division in the union, the clubs' desire to move smoothly and with fiscal autonomy into the professional age.

There is an irony then that today, when the counties are looking for another champion, that Gloucestershire should have a senior player, Gloucester's Tim Smith, at full-back. Twickenham is an appropriate setting for Smith since he has decided to retire at the end of the season. "I will be 34 next month and it is getting tougher and tougher to keep training and playing and stay with everyone," said Smith, who needs one more game to reach 350 for the club. He is already Gloucester's second-highest scorer with 2,751 points, after Peter Butler's 2,961.

Smith has no problem with the perceived clash of interests as his career reaches an exciting and appropriate climax. "There is no division of ideals," he said. "I treat club rugby as it is supposed to be treated - deadly seriously. The county championship is a sort of release for me, my escape from the pressures of club rugby, I go out and have a bit of fun. I do things when I am playing for the County that I would never dream of doing in a league match, running from my own try line, silly passes, back flips, the lot."

Smith, a scaffolder, has always been a fan of the county championship, even though opportunities to play in it have been strictly limited in his 15 seasons with Gloucester. "The whole county championship means a lot to me," he said. "I'm quite upset that it has been devalued.

"When I was part of the set-up in 1984 I went into it big time and I found it enjoyable. It was my first taste of senior representative rugby. I thought it was a start, that I could go on from there, but then it died a death.

"The best thing about it is that the players, especially in Gloucestershire, are number one. Everyone agrees that without the players there wouldn't be a game. At club level professionalism is going to mean players will be treated like commodities. I am going to miss the gravy train, but fortunately I won't have to put up with all the messing about. There is going to be a lot of garbage for the next few years before it is all settled."

Smith has his sights set on a personal double to bow out on. He wants to help Gloucester beat relegation from the First Division - he has already played a big part in that by scoring 11 of the points that beat Bath 10 days ago - and helping Gloucestershire lift the County crown.

"I can't think of a higher note to finish on. And it's nice to go out with a trip to the Big House, I have to call Twickenham that," he explains, "because I call Kingsholm HQ. With two weeks of my career left I still have goals to attain. That's great. Not many people can claim that.

"This could be the final county championship on this scale, so it is a privilege to be playing in it. The family get a nice day out and as for the players a lot of them have never been there before, so it has been good to be involved in their excitement. Obviously being an old head I will have to try to calm them down.

"We'll have a go against Warwickshire, but I've told the lads whatever happens it's going to be a good night out in London."