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Any Place He Hangs His Cleats Is Home : American Rugby Star Practices His Trade All Over the World

October 22, 1987|SCOT BUTWELL | Times Staff Writer

His home is a small apartment in Westwood near the UCLA campus. But to Tommy Smith, one of the world's top rugby players, the rest of the world feels more like home to him than Westwood. Or the United States.

He finds nothing wrong with his home country. But to be the best in his sport, America isn't the place to be.

In most countries, rugby equates to American baseball in popularity. In New Zealand, South Africa and Wales, rugby is the national sport. In America, rugby doesn't even match minor league baseball in popularity. You get the picture. So where does that put Smith?

All over the world.

Thanks to rugby, he's been to Hong Kong, Scotland, Australia, England, Fiji and Japan.

"The traveling is definitely the best part of the sport," said the 28-year-old Smith, who left last week for a month-long tour with the United States national team in Wales. The tour will be sponsored by Nike shoes.

Traveling, however, does have one catch.

"In other countries, employers give players time off from their jobs (to play internationally)," says Dennis Storer, who coached Smith on the 1978 national team and now is the UCLA rugby mentor. "But in America, not everyone is that sympathetic. Players lose their jobs."

"I've lost two jobs," Smith said. "It's just a decision you have to make: Play rugby and not work. Or work and not play rugby."

Smith worked as a bartender and waiter before being fired and now is a market representative for Adidas shoes. Getting fired, he says, is something you have to accept and understand. With a rugby scholarship to UCLA (Smith plans to graduate next summer after eight years because of the time rugby has demanded), he has been able to avoid financial trouble, but others aren't as fortunate.

"I remember one player who went on a tour with the Santa Monica Club team who didn't have a penny," the blond-haired, blue-eyed Bruin laughed. "The rest of the team covered him. I think he had a better time on the tour than anyone else.

"Playing internationally is a unique experience and once you catch the rugby bug, guys will lose their wives for the camaraderie and excitement that going overseas offers."

Practically unknown in America, Smith is known overseas. He won the player of the tournament honor last year while playing for the national team in Hong Kong where the best players in the world competed.

The three-day tournament drew more than 400,000 fans. Contrasted to the sparse attention rugby draws in the United States, American players undergo a radical social change overseas.

"For players who are making their first trip overseas, it takes awhile for them to get used to the change," Smith said. "In America, they don't have kids flocking to them for autographs."

Smith, a seven-year tour veteran, remembers his first tour in 1977 after quitting the Texas Rangers baseball AA team, where he was a 15th-round draft pick out of high school in Maryland.

"I had time to kill and a friend asked me if I wanted to tour England with the Washington rugby club," he recalls. "I wasn't real excited about rugby and I didn't even have enough money.

"But my friend's mom sprang for the plane ticket, so I went.

"We spent two weeks in England and saw the U.S and England national teams play. I hadn't played rugby, but after watching the international level of play, I decided that I could make the national team."

Smith made the U.S. national team the following year in only his second year of rugby. And three years later he was picked to play in an all-star game featuring the best players in the world.

Storer remembers what he said to Smith before that game: "This game was against the best players in the world and he had been playing the scrumhalf position for only a year. So I asked him, 'Do you want me to sit down and discuss strategies of the scrumhalf?' He said he'd just wing it. He looked great, almost as if he'd been playing the sport all his life, which was the case of his teammates and opponents in the game."

"Rugby is an all-around game: You have to kick, pass, run and tackle," Smith said. "I played all sports in Maryland; quarterbacked my high school football team. Rugby is similar to the football pickup games that you play as a kid, fast-paced and less regimented than organized football. So I've had a strong background for rugby."

With his traveling, Smith also has a background for the history degree he hopes to receive next summer.

"It's great. I write school papers on every country I visit."

Name a country and Smith and will tell you his impressions of it.

Scotland: "The people are warm. We get hosted by Scottish families and see how they live. I stayed with a family on a Kelso farm during harvest time and helped them raise crops at 5 in the morning. They'd work every day until 10 at night, but when Sunday came it was rugby time. We'd play in towns of 2,000 but 15,000 would be at the game. It's a social event; all the neighboring cities come.

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