Deep down, Div knows who

2011-09-14 00:00

THE parrot-cry for Bismarck du Plessis to replace John Smit at hooker in the Springbok World Cup team has become deafening and now even the neutrals are joining in the chorus.

The impact Du Plessis made in the final quarter against Wales, and his powerful influence for the first hour against the All Blacks in the Port Elizabeth Test last month have underlined his reputation as the most effective hooker in world rugby.

But Bok coach Peter de Villiers has attached that label to Smit and embarrassed his captain by declaring him the “best hooker in the world” at a media briefing last week.

Smit, fitter, lighter, motivated and more physically involved than he has been since 2009, is not playing badly. But the bottom line is simply that a younger, stronger and more dynamic player has more to offer and deserves to start. Even those watching from a distance are now having their tuppence worth.

Stuart Barnes, the former England flyhalf and respected television commentator, said he was mightily impressed with Du Plessis’ efforts against the All Blacks and astonished that Smit was preferred to him against Wales.

Writing in the London Telegraph yesterday, former England lock Paul Ackford clambered aboard the bandwagon. He described Smit as the rock on which the current Bok team has been built, but says Peter de Villiers has to pension him off or pay a heavy price.

“Smit, in his pomp, was a mobile rallying point. His work at the lineout and in the scrummage was first rate. His power on those short charging bursts often attracted two or three defenders. His hands were good, but more than all of this, he was the public face of Springbok rugby as well as the man inside the camp who held it all together. And now Smit is finished, even if he appears reluctant to acknowledge the fact himself. The thing with great players is that they never fall off the cliff altogether.”

Ackford writes that Smit, as a once great player, knows the shortcuts and has masked his decline.

“Coaches, either for sentimental reasons or because they cannot identify the moment when a legend finally becomes a liability, instinctively hang on to the guys who have served them so well.”

Smit’s place in history is assured after he led the Springboks to victory in the 2007 World Cup and against the 2009 British Lions.

“But history may also record that it was against Wales in South Africa’s opening encounter of the 2011 World Cup that Smit finally lost his grip on Test rugby,” says Ackford.

“De Villiers has to ask himself whether Smit or du Plessis is the best hooker in the party. Not the best leader. Not the most articulate, nor the most trusted, nor the most inspirational. Just the best hooker. My bet is deep down he knows the answer.”

Ackford might well be right, but with De Villiers you never quite know, and he has now further muddied the waters by telling the media that selection will be on a horses-for-courses basis and that the three hookers in the squad — Smit, Du Plessis and Chiliboy Ralepelle — all provide something different.

He said the bench “made a hell of a difference” against the Welsh on Sunday. “I think that is the way to go, to keep something up your sleeve. We look at it holistically and then we make our decisions there, because definitely there are some attributes that Bizzy [Du Plessis] has that John doesn’t have, and there are some that Chilli has that the other two don’t have.”

Could De Villiers still seriously be contemplating overlooking Du Plessis again in the interests of keeping something up his sleeve?

Or is he just reluctant to grasp the nettle?

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