A tale of two different titles

2009-11-14 00:00

AND now for something completely different.

John Smit’s autobiography, Captain in the Cauldron, was released yesterday and it could hardly be more different from last month’s sleazy revelations by former Springbok scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen. One is a rugby story, a refreshing account by the most capped Test captain in world rugby, a man with the most complicated and taxing leadership job in the game. The other, Joost: The Man in the Mirror, is a well-timed confession by a former great scrumhalf who has written about rugby, but has also generously tapped into his own failings on the way to a quick buck.

Smit’s book, because he has a largely happy rugby story to tell, will quickly become a best­seller. Van der Westhuizen’s offerings have already proved popular, but only because of his intimate disclosures — and that says as much about his readers as it does about our fallen hero.

The contrast between the two Springboks could hardly be more vivid. Smit, intelligent and sensible, has consciously sidestepped the trappings of fame during a protracted career. Joost, the past player, has basked in the limelight and embraced the celebrity lifestyle.

This is not to suggest that Smit’s book lacks spice, variety or interest. The Bok captain has told his story to Mike Greenaway, the respected and incisive Durban rugby writer who has travelled the world with Smit during his career with the Sharks and the Springboks.

Smit, often in the most colourful, forthright language, has provided the background to most of the questions that continue to baffle and bother confused South African rugby supporters. With a decade of Test rugby behind him, and in the frontline as captain for the past six years, no one could be better positioned or qualified to trace the workings of the Springboks.

Smit joined new coach Jake White in 2004 when the Springboks were down and South Africa rugby was being ridiculed for Kamp Staaldraad. Smit provides a detailed, no-nonsense analysis of South African rugby’s naked version of a boot camp, adding that he might do it again because it taught him so much about himself. The venture successfully bonded the players but ultimately it failed, he says, because it did not help the limited, inexperienced 2003 World Cup squad play rugby.

Smit, with first White and then Peter de Villiers, picked his way through a minefield of political intrigues and on-going controversies over the next six years to mould a winning culture and transform the Springboks into the most successful team on the planet.

Smit is eloquent and honest in the telling of his life story but he has not dodged controversial issues, bitter memories or players and coaches who aggravated him.

It will come as some surprise to South Africans that the rotund prop Ollie le Roux, the apparently genial Friar Tuck of Springbok rugby, was one of the most unpopular players in the Sharks squad, “an expert at everything” and part of “a poisonous collaboration” with Chris Rossouw (the former Bok hooker).

Kevin Putt was another major disappointment, said Smit, and he accuses the former Sharks coach of being dishonest with his players with one, number eight Shaun Sowerby, leaving Durban to play rugby in France because of him.

A lack of administrative honesty is a recurring theme, resulting in White’s dropping of Fourie du Preez for Bolla Conradie on the morning of an All Black Test and the selection of Luke Watson following political pressure.

Watson, says Smit, was a “victim of circumstances who grew up amid endless family politics”.

The bad environment in the Bok team in 2008 was not because of the new coach (Peter de Villiers) — as the public thought — but because of the presence of Watson whom the Springboks regarded as “the cancer” in the team.

It became so pointed that Smit’s theme in his team talk, in front of Watson and ahead of their stunning 53-8 win over the Wallabies last year, was that 21 players “are bigger than this one guy”.

Watson had no wish to be part of the Bok environment and Smit cites an incident when the flank was SMSing during an earnest team meeting.

But, in the main, Smit dwells on the positive and is warm in his praise of coaches like Dick Muir, Ian McIntosh, John Plumtree, Jake White and Peter de Villiers, and players like Victor Matfield, Percy Montgomery, Butch James and Fourie du Preez.

Smit is critical of Muir’s decision “to sub his captain and kicker [Smit and Percy Montgomery]” in the closing minutes of the 2007 Super 14, which ended in defeat for the Sharks by the Bulls and provided him with his “worst moment of rugby” and left him sobbing in the toilet for five minutes after the game.

Smit describes Plumtree as close to the perfect coach – “he’s technically brilliant, very good with people, frank and calm”.

Smit, of course, had an excellent relationship with White, but he saves his warmest praise for Peter de Villiers who took the Boks to their victories in the British Lions and Tri-Nations series.

Smit says that any other South African coach, taking over from White after the 2007 RWC triumph, would have broken down the team “in an attempt to do it their way”.

Smit said that De Villiers was different from other coaches, preferring to stay out of the limelight, building on the strong team culture and empowering the experienced players.

“Peter has been the right man at the right time for this Springbok team,” says Smit.

Smit has a heck of a story to tell. It is a refreshing tale which will wash away any nasty taste left by Van der Westhuizen’s shenanigans.

C aptain in the Cauldron by John Smit with Mike Greenaway (Highbury Safika Media), Cape Town. R225.

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