“Playing in front of 80,000 people in the Stade de France is not something you get to do every day.”
It’s less than a month after the Rugby World Cup Final and the sport is starting to get back to normal. South Africa were worthy champions, the run they had to get to the final – and the final itself – proved to the rugby community that they are still the team to beat. Scotland can consider themselves unlucky to be drawn in the same group as the back-to-back champions and Ireland, who at the start of the tournament were the top ranked side in the world. I caught up with Ayrshire’s own Ollie Smith to find out what he made of his first ever World Cup, what it was like to face South Africa, and the confidence he has taken from the tournament.
Ollie, great to meet you, and thanks for taking the time when I know you are getting back into training. How do you feel now the tournament is over and was it a valuable experience?
Yes, it was an awesome experience. We have had a few weeks now to reflect on the pre-season, the warm-up games and the World Cup itself. At the time you just get on with it, you don’t really think too much about it. Now being back in Glasgow and thinking back, I can look back and think how special it was. Sold out stadiums, playing the best teams in the world, it was pretty cool, very special and something I can look back on forever.
Did you get some time off when you came back from France?
Yes, it was a long process: pre-season, warm-up games and then the World Cup itself, so it took some adjusting coming back. We got two weeks off which was pretty low-key for me. I spent the first week getting back to grips with being in Glasgow and I have recently moved so I was sorting my flat out. I spent some time with my family and then came back into training. Two weeks off was enough. I think towards the end of the second week I was getting pretty bored and was itching to get back to training. I hadn’t seen the boys for three months so it was nice to get back in.
It’s been a big 18 months for you internationally, from your Six Nations call up in 2022, to your first cap and then try in Autumn 2022, and now the World Cup. If someone had said to you two years ago that you’d be playing in the World Cup and scoring tries, would you have believed them? Does it seem real?
At school it was always my goal but moving to the Warriors I never had a timeline. If you go back two years I wasn’t playing that much, I’d had a couple of appearances off the bench by Christmas. Then it accelerated pretty quickly… called up to the Six Nations, then I got injured had a bit of time out, then went on the Summer Tour. It did all go pretty fast; it wasn’t something I expected but was always something I wanted to do. I try not to treat it any differently to how I do here at Glasgow. I prepare the same here as I would for Ireland or South Africa, that way you don’t get caught up in the moment and you do your own thing, play your own game and everything takes care of itself. I am just enjoying playing as much rugby as I can. It is much better than not playing!
When you were first called up last year, was it different, did you feel like you belonged there?
It was a bit different. When I started playing at Glasgow there was an element of imposter syndrome because I wasn’t playing and then I started playing again so I almost felt like I was getting a game as a last resort. The difference at Scotland is you have earned the right to be there, you aren’t the last resort. I’d played 4 or 5 games in a row for Glasgow and felt I had played quite well. I didn’t expect to get called up, it wasn’t even in mind, and then I got the call from Gregor and went to training. I suppose in my first week I felt a little out my depth as I didn’t know those boys that well, but then you reassure yourself, you deserve to be there, and they are so good there at pushing and backing you. The squad and Gregor are so welcoming, and you feel like every person there backs you. That put me at ease and allowed me to relax in that environment.
Let’s talk about your first try – Australia. How did that feel?
Yes, it felt great. It was a set play they had been running for years. What’s nice is that Matt Fagerson says it was his down line that allowed me to score! As I got close to the line, I was thinking I’ll just score this, then I stepped off my left and scored. Again, my teammates all told me if it was off my right I don’t score. Nothing like your teammates to bring you back down to earth! It was at Murrayfield and all my family was there, so it was pretty cool, I enjoyed that.
The squad gets announced in August, do you know in advance you are going to make it or are you waiting nervously by the phone?
They must do it in position order, I’m always at the end. When I got called up for this year’s Six Nations, I didn’t hear till 9pm, so I wasn’t expecting anything early. I was hoping, but I was a bit nervous. I knew I had played in the warm-up games, but you don’t want to be too confident, and then I got the call from Gregor and it felt good to be involved.
How was the build-up? When you went there did it feel like World Cup fever?
No, I think as we had trained for so long and been over there for that period of time it just felt like a huge cycle of training. Intense, hard training, four days a week. We got to the World Cup; it was great to be in that environment but due to the rigorous training it didn’t feel too different. Again, looking back you now realise it was pretty special. Training every day, getting police escorts to training, people recognise you. You get to the game, the stadiums are sold out, the atmosphere was incredible, and playing in front of 80,000 people in the Stade de France is not something you get to do every day. Being able to reflect on it and appreciate each different stage is quite cool.
Do you feel you were able to appreciate it at the time or would that have taken you out of that competitive mindset?
It’s a hard balance, you don’t want to go out and think ‘wow, there’s a lot of people here’ and let that overwhelm you. But when playing the game, you do want to take a second and look around and appreciate. In my position there are times I’ll be away at the back and in the break of play I’ll look around and think ‘this is pretty cool’, but you can only do it for a second as then you need to switch back on to winning a game of rugby. It is hard to appreciate it at the time but cool to look back.
First game of the World Cup and you are up against the World Champions, the best team in world rugby. How does that feel and when you get the call, is it just like any other game for the Warriors or is there a moment of ‘I’m coming on against South Africa in the World Cup’?
I think because of the game script we are down 15 points with 15 minutes to go so we were going for it. I just wanted to get on and get my hands on the ball as early as possible and see if we could come back at these guys. There was a moment of ‘these guys are pretty big’, but as soon as you get your first carry, first tackle, that all drifts away.
What are they like to play against?
I think I got it a bit easy as there were only 15 minutes left and they were tired, but they are massive, they are all massive. Etsebeth looks big on TV and is big in real life and their back line is also huge. Kolbe is probably scarier as he is small and powerful and can step you so easily. If Etsebeth runs over the top of me, no one flinches, but if I get stepped by Kolbe I look like an idiot!
You miss the Tonga game but then come back and start against Romania, a dominant display from the team, and you score. That must be a special feeling being able to say ‘I’ve scored a try in the World Cup’?
It was pretty cool. I knew from the prep and the narrative painted to us by the coaches that Romania isn’t a top tier nation. We had played Georgia and not done probably as well as we should, so we wanted to close these boys out. I think as well you could argue we were a second team going out there, so you have a point to prove and it almost puts you more at ease. Why don’t we go out and have a crack? To nil a team at the World Cup is pretty cool and the fashion we did it in was great. There were maybe ten minutes where we let off but apart from that we were good, right down to our discipline. For my try it opened up in front of me and I just kept running.
Ireland game up next and you come on after 10 minutes. Did you expect to be on that early?
No, not at all. Blair goes down and I get the call to come on, then I find out 10 minutes later he isn’t coming back on. I think it’s the hardest game I have ever played in, in terms of the speed of it and the physicality. Constant rucks, big tackles, big collisions. We had lost the game at half time through our own defensive errors. We spoke at half time about having a bit of fight and going for it. We scored two tries, probably should have had more and in the end, they were more clinical than we were. Ultimately, we were beaten by a better team, you can’t complain too much about that.
Do you feel you learned a lot from playing these great teams and that you can carry that forward this season for the Warriors and Scotland?
Yeah, I think it definitely grows confidence. Going into the World Cup I only had a few caps. To be involved as much as I was, it can only do you good. So, coming back it gives me great confidence in my skillset and what I can bring to the team, and what I can give to other people. I still feel pretty young, certainly in the Scotland squad, not so much here, but I feel I might feel more comfortable to speak up more and back myself more.
Did you play more in the tournament than you thought you would?
Yes, definitely. I thought I would be involved in the warm-up game against Italy. Gregor was transparent saying boys would play against Italy and then not be involved afterwards. So, to be involved in all four warm-up games, it was a surprise, but I wasn’t scared I was excited. It showed me the coaches backed me and trusted me and that can only do good for me in the future.
Let’s go back now… born in Prestwick, played rugby at Marr and Ayr. Do you feel the rugby set-up in Ayrshire is a good building ground?
Absolutely! I played with some guys who I really believed could go to the next level. Maybe there were other commitments or sometimes it’s a break that goes your way or doesn’t. At Ayr there were players who could have gotten into age grade stuff and didn’t, but I think they could have stepped up. Ayr 1stXV are top of the league currently and Marr got to the final of the cup last year. There is such a great following as well, I feel like when you go to home games at Ayr it is always busy, and it has a good atmosphere.
Final question, the big one, Ayr play Marr, who are you supporting?
I would probably lean towards Marr, that’s where my rugby career began.
It’s clear to see that the World Cup has had a terrific impact on Ollie, with memories that will last forever, and some added confidence the next time he represents Glasgow and his country. With two tries and three World Cup appearances to his name at just 23, I feel like we will be watching him at Murrayfield for many years to come, hopefully with some more Ayrshire teammates in the near future.