Ian Smith, former captain and coach of Leicester Tigers, pictured at Oakham School

Credit: John Robertson 

Each member of Warren Gatland’s squad, and indeed any player to have ever been picked for the British and Irish Lions, will have experienced several sliding-doors moments on their path to selection.

Ian Smith orchestrated an early, yet significant turning point in Hamish Watson’s career. Just over a decade ago, he drove the promising Oakham School openside flanker 30 miles up the A606 to Nottingham for an assessment day with Scottish Exiles. Chris Gray, lock for Scotland’s Grand Slam-winning side of 1990, oversaw matters.

“I had been taking him to Leicestershire trials before that,” Smith remembers. “And what sticks in my mind now is that he could have been playing for the Lions as an England international. But that wasn’t to be.”

Watson’s father had asked Smith whether he knew anyone involved in the Scotland age-group set-up. Silly question, really. If he kept books of his rugby contacts, Smith could fill an entire library.

The former Leicester Tigers back-rower, a veteran of 331 appearances between 1977 and 1991, reached for the phone. He called Gray, whom he had faced in East Midlands derbies against Nottingham before they both moved into coaching, and arranged for one of his Oakham 1st XV to be seen.

Watson during the Lions' training camp in Jersey

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Watson embarked on a winding road that has eventually carried him to South Africa on the back of a superb Six Nations. Smith, universally and often reverentially known by his nickname of ‘Dosser’, estimates that Scotland’s all-action cult hero is the 30th Lion he has coached.

Watson will become the third Oakham old boy among that group. Lewis Moody and Tom Croft have preceded him, giving Smith a hat-trick of protégés to have represented the Lions since he joined the Rutland independent school in 1995.

“They’re fantastic role models,” says Smith, who admits it feels “special” that the trio are all back-rowers like him. Incidentally, if they were all available for an Oakham exhibition game, he would keep Watson at openside with Croft wearing six and Moody anchoring the scrum.

“You do have to be careful when they come back during term time, though” Smith adds. “I met Lewis for a coffee in town once and I told him: ‘We’re going through the school – but don’t stop. Just say hi to the boys and girls as you go through’. Of course, he stopped.

“He signed hundreds of autographs and I got a battering over email because so many kids were late for lessons! Hamish’s reaction when I told him this story was: ‘Do you think they’ll do that when I come back?’ Talk about humble. I’m sure I’ll be getting a battering over email again.”

Tom Croft enjoyed success on two Lions tours, in 2009 and 2013

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Tim Payne, Danny Grewcock, Simon Shaw, Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and James Haskell all worked alongside Smith with England Students and age-group teams. Hill, currently team manager under Eddie Jones, occasionally touches base with Smith to natter about talent they have spotted.

It is his affiliation with Tigers, which has lasted almost 50 years, that truly reflects the scale of Smith’s influence. In his many diverse roles from first-team coach to designated mentor via running children’s summer courses at community clubs, the 63-year-old has encountered a vast pride of Lions.

Among the backs have been “amazingly skilful” Austin Healey, “flamboyant” Geordan Murphy, Will Greenwood, both Underwood brothers, Tim Stimpson, Ollie Smith, Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and 2009 tourist Harry Ellis.

“He was destined to become one of the world’s greatest scrum-halves,” says Smith, who established an Under-16 team to capture more local talent for Tigers. Ellis, blighted by injuries before his retirement at 28, was in its inaugural intake.

The 30 British and Irish Lions coached by Ian Smith

Graham Rowntree, Dorian West, Neil Back, Martin Johnson and Ben Kay constitute a decent start to the list of Leicester forwards. Smith rates understated Martin Corry extremely highly: “He just got on with things. You would never know ‘Cozza’ was a World Cup-winner”.

Gifted Wales loosehead prop Darren Morris arrived at Tigers in 2003, two years after travelling to Australia with the Lions. Smith recalls Rowntree and Darren Garforth laying on an uncompromising welcome during a defensive drill.

Eric Miller, the versatile Ireland back-rower who faced the Springboks under Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer in 1997, used to frustrate Dean Richards because of how long he needed to clarify calls and strike-moves ahead of Leicester matches. When conversation turns to Richards, the game understanding of Newcastle Falcons’ director of rugby stands out.

Dean Richards (left) tackles Otago's Josh Kronfeld, who would also play for Leicester Tigers, on the 1993 Lions tour of New Zealand

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“Dean is one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve come across,” Smith continues. “When we played together before I retired in 1991, I used to ask him where his secret tunnels under the pitch were.

“He’d be able to go from there to there to there and then be back under a high ball. Meanwhile, I was running my balls off chasing everything!”

Smith has relished watching Dan Cole, a Lion in 2013 and 2017, find a “second wind” recently. But the recipient of the fondest tribute might raise eyebrows.

Tom Youngs had been a midfield partner of Matt, Smith’s son – now one of Steve Borthwick’s assistant coaches at Welford Road, having amassed 228 matches for Leicester himself. For the success of his positional switch to hooker, and his stoicism in dealing with the personal turmoil of his wife’s cancer battle, Youngs has earned profound respect.

Smith's son Matt, right, is now an assistant coach at Leicester 

Credit: AFP

“He’s the player that, for me, never really gets the accolades he deserves,” Smith says. “At the end of the season he made his first Premiership start at hooker [2012-13], he started there for the Lions [against Australia].

“I think he has a case for being the greatest Leicester Tigers captain of all time. Martin Johnson, Dean Richards and Peter Wheeler have won this and that. How many have had to deal with what Tom has had to deal with? I’m so full of admiration for him.”

Less surprising is the fact that Smith’s dedication inspires steadfast loyalty. Just last week, Johnson popped into Oakham to help with a lineout session.  He stayed for an hour and a half.

“There were about 36 forwards there,” explains Smith, “Some of them might struggle to make the 4th XV next year, but ‘Johnno’ gave them all the same time, guidance and thought.”

Smith sits at the centre of a thriving – and expanding – network. He has been able to phone Neil Back and Richard Cockerill, past and present Edinburgh coaches, to hear about Watson’s progress since being released by Tigers as a teenager.

Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill (left) was coached by Smith at Leicester 

Credit: PA

By 2025, two more Oakham alumni could be challenging for Lions berths. Leicester’s Jack van Poortvliet and Sam Costelow of Scarlets would form an exciting Anglo-Welsh half-back partnership.

Coaching, Smith believes, still gives him as much pleasure these days as when he started some 30 years back. Variety is one reason for that. As well as guiding Oakham to successive Daily Mail Cup triumphs in 2002 and 2003, another proud moment was assembling an Under-12 ‘D’ team and watching them draw 40-40 draw with Trent College.

“Your best coaching can happen in a coffee shop,” says Smith. “You might get talking and find out someone has a family member that’s not so well, for example. That might be why they’ve been off in training or whatever.

“To a large extent, my approach has been about getting to know people. I give everyone a promise: I’ll will help to make them better. How much better they become is dependent on a lot of variables – their work-rate, belief, desire, understanding.”

Watson, like Moody and Croft before him, has climbed all the way to the top thanks, in part, to a foundation laid by their mentor at Oakham.

Smith pictured at Oakham School

Credit: John Robertson

“The other two will have been in contact to congratulate Hamish,” Smith says. “I’m sure he’s had someone who sat three rows back from him in a maths lesson get in contact as well.

“It’s a great privilege to hear them say that some of their best times in rugby were playing here at Oakham with their really close mates, the ones they grew up with. That’s such a thrill.”

When Watson was chosen by Warren Gatland to face Japan, Smith sent him a text message that read: “What could be better than making your Lions debut at Murrayfield? Maybe a series win in South Africa.”

An untimely concussion in training robbed Watson of that first experience, but you can be sure he will give his all to win Test selection and carry the fight to the Springboks. Smith’s drive to Nottingham was well worth it.