ROBBIE SMITH was a member of the Scotland Under-20s match-day squad in all ten competitive games played last year, but his appearances on the park were restricted to seven late cameos off the bench [five during the Six Nations and two at the Junior World Cup in Georgia].
He was an unused sub in each of the team’s last three games – against Italy, Wales and Australia – as the young Scots marched to a highest ever Junior World Cup finish of fifth in Georgia last summer.
Smith readily admits that it was a frustrating time. To be that close to the action but not trusted enough to be allowed to get involved must be classed as some sort of torture for a young player desperate to make his mark – but the 19-year-old hooker from Newton Stewart reacted in the best possible way, and has returned to the set-up this season as a vastly improved all-round player, leading to his appointment as captain of the team for this year’s Six Nation’s campaign.
“Not to get a lot of game time last year was disappointing at times, but looking back I can see that it was a really good experience for me. There was a lot of really experienced players – like Callum Hunter-Hill – who had been involved in pro rugby, so being in that environment was really valuable,” he reflects.
“The World Cup was just unreal. It really did motivate me to think about what I needed to do to make rugby my career. I worked hard in the gym on my strength and my fitness during the summer; and on my throwing – although it maybe didn’t look like that on Friday night.”
“I’m quite close with Callum Forrester [head coach at Ayr], who has really pushed me forward and given me a chance to start and get game time at club level, and that’s really helped because I wasn’t getting much time on the park at any level last year.”
Smith has been a revelation for Ayr this season. Experienced players and coaches have both commented that he is one of the best young players they have worked with in any position, in terms of both ability and attitude.
Despite having to help out the injury ravaged squad by playing tight-head and loose-head prop at various time, he has consistently been one of the team’s most influential performers – which is pretty impressive for a player who is still seven months short of his 20th birthday and is in his first year as a regular starter in senior rugby.
“It was probably a useful experience in understanding what those guys are trying to do – but not something I really want to go back to,” Smith laughs, when asked about his experiences filling in at prop – which says a lot about his attitude towards using every challenge as a positive force in his own development.
He is a full-time stage three member of the Glasgow BT Sport Academy which means he trains regularly with Dave Rennie’s Warriors.
“That is a great environment to be in,” Smith observes. “A lot of the time you are not doing the full training session, you are just holding bags, which sounds rubbish but when you take a step out of it you realise that you are getting an opportunity to see what top pros really train like. It’s a great experience to be in amongst the big dogs.”
“I do a lot of throwing and skill work as a group, with guys like Fraser Brown and George Turner there – and they are always very helpful in giving you little tips to improve your game.”
When he is not chasing a rugby ball around a pitch or training paddock, Smith spends a fair amount of time studying for an Open University degree in International Business. He clearly has one eye on life after rugby, but also finds
“When you are in camp for the Six Nations you are seven days a week for six weeks with the same boys, so you need something to switch off to – so that you can take your mind away and refresh yourself, because otherwise you’ll think about the game too much and it starts getting too much,” he reasons.
Smith also enjoys the odd round of golf to take his mind off the game, and he says the 18 holes he shot with his father on Saturday morning was invaluable in helping him get over the 36-3 defeat Scotland Under-20s suffered to Wales in their Six Nations opener the night before, when the hooker was particularly frustrated with how the line-out went.
“It just annoyed me because the way the line-out had been through the week in training was really good – there was no problems at all – and for Ayr this year my percentage has been 90 percent. It was a just a bad day at the office, I suppose,” he reflects.
“That [playing golf with his dad] actually helped a lot in getting over it. As captain, being negative about my own performance when we came back in on the Monday wouldn’t have helped spur on the other players in the squad – especially a lot of the guys who are involved for the first time.”
Smith is right about there being no time for him to skulk in the background, licking his wounds and feeling sorry for himself, during a Six Nations campaign. Seven days on and another huge challenge has already arrived, in the shape of France – never beaten by Scotland at Under-20s level – at Broadwood Stadium tonight.
“They are a really big, physical pack. A lot of their boys are playing professional rugby. Our second-row, Ewan Johnson, who plays across in France, has been telling us about them – so we know they are a handy outfit full of big boys, but I’m sure that if we front up against them the we will do just fine. I think we’ll be a lot fitter than them, and probably more strategic,” concluded Smith.
Scotland U20 (v France U20 at Broadwood Stadium, Friday 7.35pm): P Dewhirst (Ayr); L Trotter (Stirling County), S McDowall (Ayr), C McLelland (Edinburgh), K Rowe (Glasgow Hawks); R Thompson (Glasgow Hawks), C Chapman (Gloucester); S Gunn (Edinburgh Accies), R Smith (Ayr), F Richardson (Edinburgh Accies), E Johnson (Racing 92), J Hodgson (Watsonians), A Erskine (Boroughmuir), G Graham (Hawick), D Onojaife (Northampton). Substitutes: B Clements (Ealing), N McBeth (Lions), M Walker (Strathallan), H Butler (Hartpury), R Darge (Melrose), K Barreto (Marr), R McMichael (Glasgow Hawks), S Yawayawa (Glasgow Hawks).