Close friends and long-time colleagues, Tom Croft and Matt Smith reflect on their testimonial year at Leicester Tigers
“We pulled up and this gangly-looking, stick-like figure was stood there,” Matt Smith smiles, reminiscing.
“We couldn’t believe he was getting such special treatment, that this was the new superstar we’d heard about.
“I remember slightly resenting the fact that we’d even had to get off the motorway to pick him up.”
How many prosperous relationships start off with quizzical looks at a service station? Does anyone even keep track?
Almost 14 years after their roadside rendezvous, centre Smith and Tom Croft are celebrating a joint-testimonial for a decade of service with Leicester Tigers.
Six domestic trophies punctuate their glittering Welford Road careers, encompassing a combined total of 352 first team appearances.
But the story – and the success – begins in the summer of 2002 when Croft, joining Oakham School’s sixth form, met up with the pre-season trip to Devon.
“Mum and dad drove me down to a service station on the M4 where I was to meet the Oakham minibuses,” explains Croft, racking his brains.
“I jumped on and I was a bit of a rabbit in the headlights, really. I didn’t know anyone at all and I was very, very quiet for the whole trip down, possibly trying to learn a few names.
“Eventually we got to Plymouth High School. The captain at the time was Joe Wheeler [an openside flanker and son of Tigers CEO Peter]. He and another couple of guys from the year above flooded their bathroom. They got in trouble and told the coaches it was me.
“It was all a whirlwind. Fortunately, being part of the first team gave me a footing to make a few friends straightaway. I knew I just had to get stuck in.”
Croft’s diligence helped him deliver. Oakham defended their Daily Mail Cup crown in the spring of 2003, overturning a Barnard Castle outfit featuring future Leicester colleague Mathew Tait in a thrilling Twickenham final. Wheeler landed a hat-trick in a 30-28 triumph.
“When you’re playing big games, you want to be stood next to someone you trust,” continues Smith, who added another try in that game.
“We know each other inside out. We know one another’s deepest, darkest secrets.
“That trust was probably earned in those big games at Oakham and we lean on those days. When you’re 17 or 18, if those games aren’t your whole world, they’re pretty close.”
Outside of school, the friends progressed through Leicester’s Academy system. An abrasive, uncompromising training environment and proximity to some of England’s premier players impressed the club’s distinctive philosophy – a single-minded, spiky competitiveness – pretty quickly.
“I was walking down the corridor at the old training building once,” Croft says. “Everything eclipsed and went dark. I looked up and it was Martin Johnson. I was 15 at the time.
“We used to go down to Oval Park every Tuesday and Thursday evening and you’d catch the senior guys leaving the training ground after a long day – Ben Kay, Martin Corry, Neil Back. You’d look at them in awe. It was exceptionally surreal.
“In my last year at Oakham, England won the World Cup. Then straight out of school I went straight into professional rugby and I was training alongside them.
“They were your teammates, but you’re in awe of them, what they’ve achieved and what they do.”
Although his experiences were similar, Smith’s perspective was slightly different. Arriving as a versatile back, he was also spurred by added motivation.
Ian Smith, affectionately known by nickname ‘Dosser’, is a prominent part of the club’s rich fabric. As an immensely industrious, tough flanker, he amassed 331 Tigers appearances between 1977 and 1991. Before taking over rugby at Oakham School, he coached Leicester for a stint too.
“My earliest memory was that the club used to play the Barbarians on Boxing Day,” Matt goes on.
“I don’t know whether Dad was coaching by then or whether he was playing. But that was always the big game of the season at Welford Road and we’d pack up Christmas to get over there. I must have been five or six.
“Because my dad had been involved with the club, I felt that I had to prove my worth as a player. Especially when I first joined, I didn’t want just to be know as ‘Dosser’s kid’ – I wanted to make my own name, really.
“That was probably the most daunting thing. I was never star struck or in awe of people. It was a case of trying to prove my worth on a personal level.
“When I was younger, all I wanted to do was play one game for Leicester. Then I wanted a 20-game tie, then I wanted 100 starts. Throughout my career, I’ve been motivated by that next milestone.”
February 2013 and a 28-13 victory over London Welsh saw the Smiths become the first ever father-and-son duo to each make a century of Tigers starts.
A couple of outings for the Saxons when Stuart Lancaster was in charge represent the closest Matt has come to England recognition. Even so, having been deployed in a variety of positions with Leicester, he is a hugely valued member of Richard Cockerill’s outfit.
Thriving as part of the more ambitious approach of new attack guru Aaron Mauger – “he’s reminded the backs that our main job is to score tries rather than chase kicks” – and given a run of games at inside centre, Smith married sound decision-making and pinpoint distribution with uncomplicated physicality.
In the run-up to the Six Nations before Manu Tuilagi returned to fitness, no Englishman wearing 12 was turning out better performances. A new two-year contract resulted and Smith will be at Welford Road until he is 32. As a mark of his popularity, he was presented with an award for outstanding service at this week’s end of season dinner.
The owner of 41 England caps and five British and Irish Lions Tests over two tours, Croft has enjoyed more international accolades. However, his nightmare injury catalogue – a broken neck followed by ruptured knee ligaments and a dislocated shoulder – would have derailed lesser men.
Thankfully, a disappointing 19-16 reverse to Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup semi-final on Sunday was Croft’s 26th appearance of the season. Cockerill admitted it was a gamble to offer Croft a new deal last April, but the dice-roll seems to have paid off.
“In terms of personal form, I’m not quite back to where I need to be yet,” adds Croft, still a supreme lineout forward and an excellent athlete. “But it it’s going to take time and things are improving.
“It was important, going into this year, to play a full season with the club. They supported me over the years I was injured and were within their rights to chop contracts. But they stuck with me.”
Croft talks of the innate attitude bred at Tigers, one that encourages an insatiable appetite for silverware – “we’re close to the Premiership play-offs, but it’s one thing making them, another thing making the final and another thing winning it.”
The Leicester way is also humble, though. One charming anecdote says a great deal about Smith and Croft and how their friendship defines their club’s philosophy.
When Croft received a late call-up to the Lions party in 2009 as a replacement for banned Munsterman Alan Quinlan, Smith had a cheeky request – more to stitch up his mate than anything else. He wanted Croft to send back a postcard, signed by Brian O’Driscoll. It never came, a 23 year-old Croft preferring to “keep his head down” on the tour of South Africa.
Four years later, on the morning of Croft’s wedding, best man Smith was shown a video message by the groom. It was Ireland great O’Driscoll, speaking from the Sydney changing rooms in the aftermath of the Lions’ series win over the Wallabies, warning Smith not to crack during his speech.
Croft grins widely on regaling that tale.
“Our families are close now,” he says. “He’s godfather to my daughter, I’m godfather to his son, our wives get on very well. Leicester really is a family club, so bonds like that with him, with the Youngs brothers and others, form a real backbone.”
Over ten years in professional sport, setbacks – non-selection, injuries, off-field issues – are inevitable. Resilience is a must. So where does that come from for these two?
“It’s just love for the club,” Croft finishes. “Smithy will have personal reasons. His dad is a foundation stone of Tigers and Smithy will want to emulate that as a through-and-through Leicester player.
“Myself? I just want to play for Leicester Tigers. From quite early on, I had that desire to see out my career at Leicester. I’ve admired players like Geordan Murphy who played for 14 or 15 years at one club. That’s been my aim since I was in my mid-20s and it still is now.
“It’s a great club. The morals behind it, the culture that drives it are that it’s a close-knit environment. You work hard for success and then you enjoy that success together.”