EVERY so often in a sporting life you get a piece of news that really does stop you in your tracks and make you wonder why you give any time to the glorious triviality that is sport.

I experienced one of those moments yesterday when a friend called to ask if I had heard the news about Tom Smith. I replied that I hadn’t but of course was quickly on to the various websites that were relaying the devastating news that Tom has been diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer that has already spread to his brain and liver.

Tom Smith? Smith of Scotland and the British Lions, a man for whom that overused word legend might have been coined? The indestructible prop who went up against the mighty Os Du Randt of South Africa and more than held his own for the Lions? Quiet, unassuming Tom who preferred to do his talking on the pitch and thus captained his country? The warrior who I can quite honestly say was the nicest man I ever met while writing about rugby?

Tom Smith struck by that dreaded disease at the age of just 48? That is just not right, just not fair. Yet that’s what cancer does – it hits people when they least expect it, and doesn’t give a damn who you are or what you have done in your life.

Nobody, but nobody, deserves to get cancer, and its effects are deeply traumatising for the sufferers and their families. The day of diagnosis starts a process that is penetratingly painful for all concerned, and nothing is ever the same again, even if you are lucky enough to hear the finest word in the English language: remission.

I know all this because cancer killed my father, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, my sister’s partner, uncles and aunts and several good friends, and not once did I experience anything other than dread and anguish even when it looked as though some might pull through.

Many years ago I attended a charity function in Edinburgh to raise money for cancer treatment and research. One of the nurses asked the audience to split into two, half standing and half sitting. She then told us that by 2020, half of all deaths in Scotland would be from cancer, and pointed at the standing half, those of us sitting down smiling and feeling relieved.

She then added: “I don’t know why you lot are smiling, the point is that we don’t know which is the half that will die from cancer.” On a merry night, it was an instantly sobering thought, and I recall that people queued to buy raffle tickets and make donations. The nurse wasn’t quite right – while cancer in all its forms is by far the biggest cause of death in Scotland it has not reached the 50% mark because of the great improvements in treatment, and the frankly transformational advances in such areas as bowel and breast-cancer screening. Early detection is utterly vital in tackling cancer and it was so typical of Tom Smith’s honesty that yesterday on the BBC he blamed himself for ignoring the symptoms and just carrying on.

He has pledged to fight the disease and has already undergone chemotherapy and radiotherapy, losing 10 kilos in weight as the tumour in his colon has grown. Clearly the prognosis is not in his favour but if anybody can fight stage four cancer and beat it,

it’s Tom Smith.

Again typically, Tom told Eleanor Oldroyd in a BBC interview – I defy any rugby fan to watch the interview and not weep, because I certainly did – that it was his family which was his concern.

“The uncertainty provokes fear,” he said, “and I would like to put as much certainty as I can into the future of my family.

“It’s quite daunting because some of the treatment is very unpleasant. But I’ve faced some tough opponents, and the least you can do is fight. So let’s fight.”

Tom Smith has fought the odds before. He was diagnosed with epilepsy at 18 and told to forget rugby. Fortunately he sought a second opinion and that led to his brilliant career as the best ball-carrying prop forward ever to play for Scotland and the Lions. This latest disease, however, is of a somewhat different order. Tom and his wife Zoe have three children – teenagers Amelie and Angus, who are hoping to go to university, and his younger son Teddy, who is just nine. They live in France now, a legacy of Tom’s successful playing years with Brive rugby club and his spell as a coach with Lyon.

Tom’s longest spell with any club was with the Northampton Saints and the reaction in that rugby-mad town has been one of utter shock at the news that has broken about one of heir most popular players of all time.

The Scottish Rugby Union has pledged to support the fund-raising efforts already under way and I am absolutely confident rugby fans everywhere will help raise cash for the causes that Tom chooses.

Coming after Doddie Weir’s diagnosis with motor neurone disease you have to wonder if there is a curse on great Scottish players of that era, but it’s just bad luck, that’s all. Now everyone, let’s rally round the very great Tom Smith.