At times the head coach position at Featherstone Rovers has resembled more a poisoned chalice, and that is possibly the way Tommy Smales sees it. A fitness expert with renowned knowledge of physical preparation and training, Tommy is an irrepressible character who always has a quip. Twice he took over as head coach in difficult circumstances in the middle of a season, and survived only until the end of that year. The first time he was coach for just four months, but was notably successful. The second time he was coach for seven months, and in more calamitous times things did not go well.
Tommy Smales enjoyed an illustrious playing career that included Championships, Cup finals at Wembley and the captaincy of his country. Unfortunately for the Rovers all of this happened after he had left his hometown club. At the time (1952 to 1956) he had severe competition for a scrum-half place and was sold to Huddersfield. He also had notable success at Bradford Northern. He played a total of 35 games for Rovers.
Tommy’s first stab at the coaching job was after the surprising departure of Keith Goulding in the middle of the successful 1975/76 season. His first game in charge was the home win against Dewsbury in February and he carried on the good work done by Goulding. After beating Wakefield and Hull KR, Rovers destroyed Leeds in a Cup quarter-final, only to go down to a disappointing semi-final defeat to Widnes. League form continued to be good and after guiding Rovers to second in the table and to within a breath of Wembley, Tommy stepped down.
Rovers had ended the 1977/78 season in turmoil with the embarrassment of a players’ strike causing the postponement of a league fixture. After a boardroom upheaval the club had persuaded Terry Clawson to take over as player coach. When it became apparent he was not up to the job, Rovers turned to Smales for the second time. Things were not right though, and a club that had been crowned league champions just 18 months previously found themselves in the mire of a relegation battle they were set to lose. The first time he was in charge in 1976, Rovers won seven straight games. This time in 1978, they lost nine straight. Tommy took over in mid November and got his first win on 11 March against Workington. Inevitably, at the end of that disastrous season, Tommy left the club again.
In his entertaining autobiography ex-GB international prop Barrie McDermott played tribute to the skills of Tommy Smales as a masseur and physiotherapist and many international players regularly visited his gym over the Traveller’s Rest pub where he was landlord for many years. Barrie described Tommy as “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”. Quite.
Tommy Smales’ coaching record:
75/76: Won 11 Drew 1 Lost 4.
78/79: Won 6 Drew 1 Lost 15
Total: Won 17 Drew 2 Lost 19 = 47.37%