Best of the rest: When Smithy played the Lions (1977)

Rex Smith was a pint-sized flanker, even by Otago standards back in 1977. He enjoyed a beer and a cigarette, and he was not the world's most enthusiastic trainer.

But put him in a contest to be first to the loose ball against the best in the business and Smith's competitive instincts and native cunning were aroused.

So it was on June 8, 1977, when Smith played the game of his life as Otago scored the only try but succumbed to Phil Bennett's boot in losing 12-7 to the Lions at Carisbrook.

To say that Smith was inspirational is a bit like claiming Jonah Lomu scored some decent tries. He was fearless, indomitable and heroic, this diminutive flanker, and, time after time, he beat the much bigger Lions loosies to the ball and was hammered for his efforts.

Four times he went down injured and four times he rose groggily to his feet, shook his head to ensure it was still attached, and resumed his pursuit of the ball.

It was one of rugby's most moving displays of courage and it was immortalised in a poem written by the late Steve Scoles, then sports editor of the Evening Star, in When Smithy Played the Lions.

It is believed the All Black selectors were so impressed with Smith's display they considered bringing him into the All Blacks, before deciding he was too light.

The player they did select, Graham Mourie, later said he modelled his play on Smith and the Otago flanker had been the biggest influence on his career.

Smith played 44 games for Otago between 1971 and 1978, but no-one who was there will ever forget the game he played against the Lions.


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