In the history of any club there are stories of players bought and sold, some bargains, some solid buys, some wastes of cash, and some filed under ‘the one that got away’. In the latter group Rovers still look back on the failure to capture the youngest Fox brother Neil as perhaps our biggest oversight, but there can be no doubt that the departure of young Tommy Smales, understandable though it was at the time, also turned out to be a serious misjudgement. Released by Rovers at 22, he went on to captain Great Britain, and was a major figure in world rugby league in the early sixties.
Tommy started out at Rovers in 1951 when Ray Evans held the number seven shirt, and it was Tommy’s aim to take it off him. Smales’ task was complicated by the presence of a goal-kicking young half-back by the name of Don Fox and by a hernia operation which set him back. By 1955 it became clear that the scrum-half berth was Fox’s and Tommy was limited to A team rugby, filling in when Fox had tonsillitis, and even playing as Fox’s half-back partner when Joe Mullaney was injured. At Christmas 1955 Smales reluctantly moved on to Huddersfield for a fee of £1,000, having played 35 first team games in four seasons at Post Office Road. At Fartown he won the Yorkshire Cup in 1957, but the zenith of his career was the year 1962. First, he captained Huddersfield at Wembley, scoring a try against a Neil-Fox-inspired Wakefield Trinity. Although Huddersfield lost, a week later the same two sides met in the Championship final, and this time Tommy led his side to victory. That Autumn he made his Great Britain debut at scrum-half against France, the first of his eight caps. In November 1963 Tommy Smales captained Great Britain against Australia, himself at scrum-half and his erstwhile nemesis Don Fox at loose-forward. Britain won 16-5 with a try from Fox.
In 1964 Smales moved to Odsal after eight years at Fartown, and won the 1965 Yorkshire Cup with Bradford. He finished playing in 1967 with a season in Australia for the North Sydney Bears. He had two spells as head coach of Rovers; from February to May 1976 taking over from Keith Goulding, and again from November 1978 to May 1979.
After playing and coaching, Tommy gained an excellent reputation as a physical conditioner and many international footballers, including Ellery Hanley, were regulars at the gym over the Travellers’ Rest pub where Tommy was landlord. In his entertaining autobiography ex-GB international prop and SKY pundit Barrie McDermott played tribute to the Tommy’s skills as a masseur and physiotherapist calling him “one of the greatest characters in the game”, and after naming him as the physio to his all-time Dream Time called him “a really nice bloke and a true rugby league man”.