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Scotland and Lions rugby legend Tom Smith dies at 50

Tom Smith's last visit to Murrayfield in November was to present the matchball for the test against South Africa.
Tom Smith's last visit to Murrayfield in November was to present the matchball for the test against South Africa.

Tom Smith, one of the greatest Scotland players of all time, has died at his home in France after a long battle with cancer.

Smith, who was just 50, won 61 caps for Scotland. He was a surprise choice for the British Lions team on the 1997 tour to South Africa but played all three tests against the Springboks, and then all three tests on the 2001 tour to Australia.

He was the last Scot to start a test for the Lions for 20 years, until last year’s tour to South Africa. Many believe he was the best Scotland player of the entire professional era, from 1995 until now.

A rich tradition of No 1s

Smith was one of the first of the modern-style mobile loosehead prop but well before his time.

Never a showy player and always modest, he followed a rich tradition of Scots in the No 1 jersey, from Hugh MacLeod through Ian McLaughlan, Jim Aitken and David Sole. Many of them also played test matches for the British and Irish Lions.

Smith was born in London to a Scottish mother and English father, but honed his rugby skills at the now-defunct Rannoch School in Perthshire.

His first regular club was Dundee High School FP, gaining his propping apprenticeship there from the legendary Danny Herrington.

Smith also played for Watsonians and the district side Caledonia Reds, turning professional with the merged Glasgow Warriors team. He played for them for a season before moving to French club Brive.

After two seasons in France he moved to Northampton, where he spent the remainder of his career until retiring in 2009. He moved into coaching initially with Edinburgh and laterally with Lyon.

First capped in 1997 against England at Twickenham, he was picked for the Lions that summer despite having won just three caps.

With Scots Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer coaching the tourists, Smith was a shock selection for the first test against the Springboks ahead of England’s experienced Jason Leonard, but never lost his place for two tours after that.

He retired from international rugby in 2005, playing his final game against England, again at Twickenham. He scored six tries for his country, the most important being the score to beat Fiji in the group stages of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

The best of his era

McGeechan and Telfer believed he was the best Scot of his era.

“He was every inch the modern prop forward with sublime running and handling skills,” said McGeechan. “That, allied to the traditional strengths that are a pre-requisite for a front-row forward to flourish in the setpiece.

“For me he has been the greatest Scotland player of the professional era to date.”

“Tom was a rugby player first and a prop second,” said Telfer. “He was never compromised with the ball in his hands.

“The skill is what I remember with Tom. You could play a different kind of game when he was in the team.”

In 2019 Smith was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer. He was inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame last November, and his last visit to Murrayfield was to present the match ball for the test match against South Africa that month.

He is survived by wife Zoe, and children Angus, Amelie and Teddy.

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