I REMEMBER Martin Corry saying to me during my first few games for Tigers to enjoy every moment that I possibly could because it goes by in the blink of an eye.
I played my first game in 2006 and was lucky enough to have 13 years as a professional player, but it really does blur into one.
There were ups and downs along the way but overall, being able to play for my hometown team, the one I supported as a boy, was a really positive part of my life.
My final season wasn’t great though. We’d been involved in a relegation battle for most of it and I dislocated my shoulder in Paris playing in the Heineken Cup. Luckily, I managed to recover in time for one last swansong, which ironically was against Bath, the team I’d first played against in the Premiership.
By then, the threat of relegation had gone, and I was properly able to soak it all in. Leading the team out along with my eldest son as the mascot is a moment that I’ll always cherish.
That first Premiership game against Bath is one I remember well, unfortunately. I wasn’t very good.
We used to review the game on the bus back in those days. A glaring defensive error of mine had led to them scoring a try, and I thought, ‘Jeez, what have I let myself in for here?’ I was so down.
A loan spell at Nottingham when I was in my late teens was invaluable to my development as a player. I actually played there with David Wilks, the academy manager at Leicester, and Matt Parr, our S&C coach.
I loved my time there even if you had a load of old boys trying to knock you around a bit. It helped get your body used to playing every week and, now as Academy head coach at Tigers, I’m a big advocate of the lads going out and playing regular rugby.
I was fortunate to go on and play well over 200 games for the Tigers. People make a lot of my dad (‘Dosser’ Smith) and I both playing for the same club but when I look back, becoming the first father-son combination to play a double century of games for the club was a very special moment.
We were successful as a club for the majority of my time at Tigers, making nine finals in a row between 2005 and 2013.
As an academy lad you’d always go down to Twickenham to support the first team and, in 2009, I got to experience my first final as a player. We beat London Irish but as we had the European Cup final against Leinster at Murrayfield the following week, Richard Cockerill told us we were on lockdown and that no-one was going out drinking. I remember being sat in McDonald’s in the centre of Leicester thinking I’d literally lived my childhood dream, yet here I am having a Big Mac on my own. Very surreal.
My last final was against Saints, which was always a game I looked forward to because of the rivalry between the clubs. It’s probably the game I missed the most now that I’m retired. It’s a bit of a cliché but it was always the game you looked for first when the fixture list came out. We don’t like them, and they don’t like us, and I used to really subscribe to that.
You kind of take all the success for granted at the time but we’d give anything as a club to be back in that position now. The future is looking good, though. Our U18s reached their Premiership final and we shared the trophy with London Irish after a draw. Some of the guys I worked with in the backs last year, people like Jack van Poortvliet, Sam Costelow and Freddie Steward, are now starting to come through into the first team. To see them kicking on, gives me a new buzz.
When you have a look back to our successful days, you had a core of guys coming through the academy. I don’t care what anyone says, it definitely means more to those players who’ve come through the system.
– as told to Jon Newcombe
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