It’s time Smit leads from the blazer

2011-09-12 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Awkward and regrettable though it is, John Smit simply cannot lead the Springboks from the front line in key remaining matches at this World Cup.

Perhaps he could still do the start-out honours against Fiji, next up. Certainly the same could apply to the Namibia date after that.

But from the potential banana-peel fixture to close their Pool D account against Samoa and presumably onward into the knockout stage, Bismarck du Plessis now has to be the top hooker in the Bok pecking order.

Let’s get this straight: John Smit didn’t play glaringly wretchedly against Wales at Wellington yesterday. Or at least no worse than several other of the much-discussed senior citizens in the Springbok stable.

Bluntly, he doesn’t have the mobility and dynamism to compete with the modern trailblazers in his slot: he’s become an ordinary presence stuck somewhere in the peloton.

The less forgiving might even spit out this ignominious label: “liability”.

But the facts from the Cake Tin are pretty straightforward: with Smit and one or two other puffing presences still on the park as the match neared the three-quarter mark, South Africa were trailing 16-10 on the scoreboard with alarm bells ringing deafeningly around them.

Smit and others are supposed to bring the Boks “grunt” … yet the snarl was instead coming overwhelmingly from the inspired Welsh.

It was time for emergency measures and Peter de Villiers, to his credit, answered the need: in quick succession on came Du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Francois Hougaard for a labouring Smit, Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana. In 23 telling minutes Smit’s direct replacement busied himself to a luminary degree, his face seemingly always at the forefront of things.

And there was Du Plessis after the siren, too, pilfering a ball back for the green and gold as the disbelieving Welsh gamely tried to snatch back a victory.

Ever the diplomat and decent man, Smit felt compelled afterwards to laud “Bizzie’s turnovers at crucial times”. Too right.

If it’s any consolation for the captain, he isn’t the only ageing Bok soldier requiring rigorous post-match scrutiny. Scrumhalf string-puller Fourie du Preez perplexingly continues to mix the near-sublime with the rank shaky this year — and if there’s a school of thought that the Boks are basking in delusional, past glory, this match only served to prove them right.

If the Boks are going to stick stubbornly to their corroding template, are they also going to have to do so, at least for a while, without their maximum personnel geared for it? Certainly the sight of Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield leaving the field prematurely via injury will only add to some confusion and unease in coming days.

There were some silver linings.

First the obvious one: despite this bumbling, low-oomph show, the Boks have taken a massive step in pool terms, considering that Wales are supposedly their stiffest obstacle.

And then how about the gees shown by the likes of Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brüssow, considering that these loose forwards spent so much time in unexpectedly scrambling, retreating mode?

That fellow Burger is a machine: only he could produce a high-industry comeback like that after so many weeks on the sidelines. Onward march the Springboks, albeit on near-embarrassed tiptoes just at the moment.

Did we “moer hulle”, as the big-mouthed Minister of Sport had so publicly desired? I hardly think so.

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