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The British and Irish Lions squad that beat South Africa in 1997 was full of giants.
The towering physical presence of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, the dominant personalities of Scott Gibbs and Keith Wood. And a diminutive, quiet, loose-head prop called Tom Smith.
Tom was an unsung hero. He shunned the limelight. But he started every Test on that tour, and every Test on the Lions tour four years later in Australia. He was a key part of the great Scotland team that won the final Five Nations Championship in 1999.
I covered a lot of Scotland games that year, but I never met Tom. Press officers knew not to ask him; in the well-worn phrase, he did his talking on the pitch. But now I’m sitting opposite him, across the kitchen table of his house in France, doing the interview no-one ever wants to do.
Because Tom has stage four cancer.
- Listen to the full interview with Tom Smith in a BBC Sounds special podcast
It’s in his colon, and it’s spread to his brain and liver. He’s having painful, intrusive treatment with the aim of extending his time with his family for as long as possible.
Tom is 48 and has three children – aged 18, 17 and nine. As autumn began this year, he and his family were on a canoe trip on the Dordogne river, seemingly without a care in the world.
But Tom was trying to ignore pains in his abdomen which wouldn’t go away. He lost weight, couldn’t sleep because of the discomfort, and started passing blood.
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