Lights up on John Smit

2010-08-21 00:00

JOHN Smit pooh-poohs celebrating personal milestones in a team sport but, like it or not, he will the centre of attention when he plays his 100th Test match for the Springboks in Soweto this evening.

It will be a massive day for the Springbok captain but also a confusing one with the South African rugby public divided between the praise-singers, the adoring back-patters, and Smit’s detractors, who are questioning his form, fitness and place in the team.

Smit’s career has been a remarkable one and only Percy Montgomery, with 102 Test caps, has played more internationals for the Springboks.

The two players could not have been more different. Fullback Montgomery broke the mould of the Springbok stereotype. With flowing blonde, occasionally peroxided, hair and coloured boots, he looked like a beach boy rather than a Springbok. He rewrote the record books and enjoyed rugby’s bright lights, playing among the outside backs, in the open spaces and away from the heavy traffic.

Battle-scarred John Smit, in vivid contrast, has done it the hard way, a grizzled veteran playing one of the toughest sports in the roughest area and at the highest level for over a decade. Since 1997, as a Natal Shark, and 2000, as a Springbok, Smit has packed down in the dark, uncompromising underworld of the front-row where physical strength, confrontation, intimidation and dirty tricks go with the territory.

But it is as an astute captain, an eloquent, generous and humble leader, that has earned him the respect of the international rugby world.

Smit has not only played more Tests than any other Springbok forward (99), but he is the most experienced captain in world rugby and today will lead South Africa for the 74th time, 15 times more than previous record-holders George Gregan and Will Carling.

And it is the success that the Springboks have enjoyed under his leadership over the past three years, along with the admirable qualities he has shown as captain and player, which will be his enduring legacy.

Smit’s Boks were named 2008 Team of the Year at the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards after winning the Rugby World Cup in France in 2007. A year ago they held every available major trophy (the Webb Ellis Cup, the Tri-Nations, the Nelson Mandela Plate, Freedom Cup) and had beaten the 2009 British Lions.

Smit’s climb to the top was predicted from his early days. He arrived in Durban from Blue Bull country straight out of school in 1997 and, within a couple of months, he was scrumming down for Natal against the British Lions after coach Ian McIntosh had sent the 18-year-old on as a replacement.

“He arrived as a tighthead but we immediately changed him into a loosehead,” says Mac. “His technique was excellent and he obviously had enormous potential.”

Celebrated British Lions and England tighthead Jason Leonard agreed and immediately after the King’s Park game arrived at the Natal dressing-room to present Smit with his jersey. Leonard later asked McIntosh about Smit and was astonished to hear that the young prop was just a year out of school.

“He is a good one,” Leonard told McIntosh, “and he’ll go a long way.”

Indeed he has, surviving a succession of coaches, political battles, off-field controversies and challengers from young pretenders on the road to becoming South Africa’s most successful captain.

But today, in what should be one of his finest hours, he is back in the dock, defending himself as a modern hooker and the Boks after their three successive defeats.

The hooker, in the days of yore, was a third prop, a scrummager who trundled between set pieces and would occasionally gleefully gobble up a stray scrumhalf.

Today the hooker — once he has shaken himself free of the scrum — is a fourth loose forward and the Sharks’ Craig Burden has shown how effective a dynamic, mobile No2 can be in the roaming role.

The irony, of course, is that Smit has spent the last two seasons trying to transform himself from a hooker into a prop only for the process to suddenly be reversed. Now he is back in the middle of the scrum in place of the injured Bismarck du Plessis and he is being harshly judged because he is not flashing about the park like a modern hooker.

Smit, physically and mentally, is now a prop, a loosehead as he showed for the Sharks in the latter stages of the Super 14 season — and not a tighthead. He certainly still has the ability to play prop where he can more than hold his own as a scrummager, in setting up plays and in hitting rucks.

Smit, in his recent autobiography, is brutally honest about his own qualities while praising the power and ability of Bismarck du Plessis who will grow into “one of the greatest front-row forwards the world has seen.”

Smit concedes that his age and weight make it “a lot more difficult to carry out the hooker’s job in the ever-increasing pace of international rugby.”

“I can’t do what Bismarck does – I’m not physically capable of it — but I also know that there are not too many props out there who can make as many tackles and ball-carries as me, or hit as many rucks.”

And that is from the carthorse’s mouth.

Careful conditioning and management in the months ahead, and a move back to loosehead — where he started all those years ago for Natal — would certainly suit Smit and enable him to still have his last hurrah at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

But that, of course, is well into the future. Tonight it is all about Smit and the Springboks, particularly the senior ones, convincing a sceptical South African public that they still have a future and that they can play winning rugby in the fast, changing world of rugby..

Smit is understandably concerned that “personal milestones are unwanted distractions which detract from the team focus.”

But his achievement could also add to the occasion and lift his team-mates.

A Bok victory would seal the most memorable of rugby occasions, a first Test in Soweto, in front of a record crowd of over 90 000 crowd and a fitting and well-deserved celebration of their captain’s 100th international cap.


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