By Gavin Mortimer
TOM SMITH was always a canny player and he’s proving pretty canny as a coach. Judging by recent events at Edinburgh that have seen the departure of the coaching staff, the 41-year-old former Scotland and Lions loosehead timed his exit from the club to perfection, leaving last summer after helping them reach the last four of the Heineken Cup. And while it’s all gone pear-shaped at Edinburgh, Smith is enjoying a “steep learning curve” as forwards coach of Lyon in Pro2.
Smith joined Lyon as they re-adjusted to life in Pro2 after an ill-fated sojourn into the Top 14 ended in immediate relegation. Determined to bounce back, the club signed two of the biggest players in the French game – Sebastien Chabal and Lionel Nallet – and also hired Smith as its forwards coach.
“There’s something good happening here,” replied Smith, in response to the question why he moved his family across the Channel. “Rugby in France is bigger than ever but there’s been a shift in recent years with the game evolving towards the big population centres. Lyon is the second biggest city in France so why hasn’t there been a big rugby team? Everything is in place in the city to achieve that. The people here love their rugby and the club is ambitious.”
Despite spending most of his professional career at Northampton, Smith had a two-year stint at Brive in the late 1990s, but the rigours of the Pro2 have nonetheless taken him by surprise. “At the beginning of the season we set out to play ‘beautiful’ rugby but that doesn’t work in Pro2. I have never seen players as big as I have in this league. There are some enormous boys and if you don’t get the set piece right and have a tight driving game, then you’re finished.”
Lyon was bedevilled by injuries at the start of the season, a situation that led to a run of defeats that threatened to scupper their attempts to climb back into the Top 14. Since Christmas, however, they’ve put together an impressive winning streak and are now well in sight of a play-off place in May. One of the players sidelined in the autumn was Chabal, who has since returned although he’s starting most games on the bench. “He’s been very keen in training,” says Smith of the former Sale loose forward turned celebrity. “He’s one of the boys, does his work and doesn’t complain.”
In his playing days Smith had a reputation as a master scrummager, a prop whose relatively small physique was compensated by brilliant technique. He’s brought that same craftsmanship to coaching, even if he is becoming increasingly concerned by how the scrum is refereed. “It’s a problem not just in the Pro2 but at international level,” says Smith. “I’ve watched back on video several penalty decisions arising from scrums in both games on Saturday [Scotland v Wales and Ireland v France] and I still can’t understand why the refs blew.”
“Wales deserved their victory but there were several penalties given against the Scottish scrum, particularly against Ross Ford, the hooker, that shouldn’t have been. In the other game I’m sure if a northern hemisphere had been refereeing France would have won because their scrum was so dominant. The problem was Steve Walsh [the referee] ended up protecting the weaker scrum.
That’s my greatest fear: that we end up with referees who don’t allow the dominant scrum to dominate, so in effect we are left with eight back row forwards. If a pack isn’t strong enough in the scrum they should be punished and not the dominant scrum. I don’t know who is refereeing the Lions Tests in Australia but I hope it’s a Frenchman. If it’s a southern hemisphere referee the Lions could struggle in the set-piece.”
Smith admits to enjoying the commentary of former England hooker Brian Moore on the BBC. He’s another one who has little time for the modern scrum. Perhaps the IRB should have the pair head up a working party to bring some sanity to the madhouse that is the modern scrum.