Scottish Rugby is deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of the country’s finest rugby players, former internationalist and captain Tom Smith, aged 50.
A wonderful loosehead prop, Smith earned 61 caps for Scotland between 1997 and 2005 and held the distinction of being selected for six straight Tests for the British & Irish Lions on their tours to South Africa in 1997 and four years later in Australia.
Tom was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer in 2019 but in typical fashion the double British & Irish Lion displayed determination and humility in fighting the disease, becoming an ambassador for cancer charity 40tude in the fight to improve early detection of such illnesses.
The rugby community rallied around one of Scotland’s greats, most notably through the hosting of a reunion lunch to commemorate the 1999 Five Nations championship triumph, of which Smith played an integral role, as well as support through the Murrayfield Injured Players Foundation, and plenty more besides.
In November last year, Tom was inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame, as he and his family – wife Zoe, sons Angus and Teddy and daughter Amelie – were welcomed onto the pitch to deliver the match ball ahead of the Autumn Nations Series game with South Africa to a standing ovation from the capacity BT Murrayfield crowd.
In paying tribute, Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend said: “Tom was one of the toughest and most skilful players I had the pleasure to call a teammate.
“He succeeded in the most challenging of environments and kept up a high level of play well into his thirties.
“Tom also did a tremendous amount for charitable causes and was a great family man. I am convinced that he will be regarded as one of our best ever players and his loss will be felt by all those who played with him or watched him for club and country over the years.”
Chris Paterson, who also played alongside Smith for Scotland, added: “Tom was simply inspirational. He was someone who had an aura that I didn’t experience with any other player and commanded instant respect. As well as being a wonderful rugby player, he was a lovely, warm generous person and made you feel ten feet tall when he spoke to you.”
Scottish Rugby Chairman John Jeffrey said: “Today, Scottish Rugby has lost not only one of its greatest players but more importantly one of its greatest people. Tom embodied everything we like to espouse about our great game. He didn’t fit the traditional role as a rugby player but showed that all shapes and sizes can shine on the International stage. He went about his business in such an unassuming manner that he caught most opponents off guard. It was this quiet but determined attitude that saw him achieve every accolade in the game.
“Pound for pound, he probably was Scotland’s greatest international. Tom was without a doubt the most humble person I have ever met and all of Scottish Rugby’s thoughts go out to Zoe and the children.”
SMITH THE PLAYER
Tom Smith, having played for Dundee HSFP after being educated at Rannoch School, first caught the attention of Scotland Head Coach Jim Telfer when representing Watsonians at the Melrose 7s as a 24-year-old in 1996. Invited to train with Scotland on the back of that showing, Smith was included in the touring squad for the 1996 tour to New Zealand and made his Scotland debut in the 1997 Five Nations against England at Twickenham.
A meteoric rise then saw the Caledonia Reds loosehead prop selected by Ian McGeechan for the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa later that year, where he played all three Tests in one of the most iconic series wins of all time. McGeechan would later describe Smith as “the greatest Scotland player of the professional era.”
Smith was part of the Glasgow Caledonia (now Glasgow Warriors) set-up before he moved to France to ply his rugby trade for Brive in 1999, then to Northampton Saints in 2001, the same year he would repeat his Lions trick and start all three Test matches in the narrow 2-1 loss to Australia.
That same year, he would captain his country on three occasions as part of a 61-cap Scotland test career that established Smith as one of the best scrummagers in world rugby.
He featured at Rugby World Cups in 1999 and 2003, before retiring from international rugby at the end of the 2005 Six Nations against the team he first faced on his debut for Scotland eight years previous – England.
Smith also experienced coaching in the years after hanging up his boots, with stints at Edinburgh and in France with Lyon.
LIONS BROKE 20-YEAR WAIT
In January 2021, Tom was a guest on the Scottish Rugby podcast and chatted with former international teammates Chris Paterson and Al Kellock about his stellar rugby career as well as his fight against stage four colorectal cancer.
In discussing his selection for the Lions, Tom gave some humorous insight into his own experience, saying: “On the ’97 tour I think it’s fair to say we retained a lot of the amateur values and behaviours which is what made the tour so much fun and four years on, the game had changed massively. I was fortunate enough to work with Geech and Jim [Telfer] and Fran Cotton [Tour Manager] and they just really knew what a Lions tour was about and how to get a group of guys who had been adversaries for the last four years to pull together in a relatively short time.”
It would be some while – 20 years in fact – before another Scot started in a Test match for the British & Irish Lions, a selection baton that Tom was no doubt thrilled to pass on during last year’s tour to South Africa. He added in January 2021: “It would be nice to not get that phone call saying ‘you were the last player to start a Test’ and it’s about time someone took that off me, so I’m quite hopeful this time around.”
That hope was realised and then some, with four of Smith’s fellow Scottish Lions – Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe, Ali Price and fellow loosehead Rory Sutherland– all starting the First Test in Cape Town to break that two-decade streak. Chris Harris would also start the Second Test, with Hamish Watson and Finn Russell also earning Test recognition to bring Scotland’s total to a heady seven.
RUGBY VALUES AND FIGHTING ILLNESS
On that same podcast, Tom tapped into how his rugby journey could stand him in good stead for his battle with cancer, explaining: “I think when you’re dealing with something like cancer there are a lot of big moments. I remember being in the hospital for four or five weeks and I wasn’t in a good place, and I saw myself in the mirror for the first time in three or four weeks. I realised I was giving up without giving up and I don’t know how to articulate what fighting cancer is. I started reading up about being more positive mentally, visualisation, treating the medicine as fixing me, and I think I could use that with rugby. The thing with wisdom is by the time you’ve got it, it’s too late to apply it and I think one of the most important strengths of a professional rugby player is awareness, alongside all the physical attributes – knowing what you’re good at, knowing what you’re bad at and when you need to hold your hands up and in that respect, having the support from the rugby community in those early days was really key to not just being alone in hospital.”
Sir Ian McGeechan’s claim that Tom Smith was among Scotland’s greatest players is one that would be endorsed by everyone associated with the game, both at home and around the world.
Scottish Rugby sends its sincere condolences to Tom’s wife Zoe, and children Angus, Amelie and Teddy at this time.