Rugby: by hook or by prop

2009-11-28 00:00

THE selection of John Smit, and not Bismarck du Plessis, to start at hooker against Ireland in Dublin today will provide rugby supporters with something tasty to gnaw on over Christmas and while rugby goes into the two-month summer recess before the Super 14 kicks off in February.

Smit, the 2007 World Cup-winning hooker, shifted to tighthead a year ago to accommodate the younger, more robust Bismarck du Plessis in the middle of the scrum, and the Springbok captain has since battled manfully through the most demanding of seasons to adapt to the demands of his new trade.

Last Saturday, just briefly, he was happily back at hooker, bullying the Italians in the scrum and finding his lineout jumpers with pinpoint throwing.

This would have prompted thousands in club and pub to nod wisely and say they told you so, that Smitty is a hooker, man, and never a tighthead.

But no one should read too much into Smit’s latest move, a horses-for-courses selection, and Smit will surely be back at tighthead next year.

His switch back to hooker today, even if it is just for the first half while the scrum settles, is both understandable and logical. The Springboks have a problem in the front-row and the scrum has been on the retreat throughout their European tour. In the closing minutes of the Italian Test, Smit returned to hooker and was reunited with two replacements, former Sharks tighthead BJ Botha and loosehead Beast Mtawarira.

They gelled immediately: “it was like riding a bicycle,” Botha explained later.

But it is a temporary solution, a scrummaging hooker for a scrummaging problem in the first front-row to click, albeit briefly, on this tour. But after this tour Botha will go back to club rugby in Ulster and Smit will return to tighthead.

A hooker in a bygone age was a third prop who trundled from scrum to lineout and flopped about rucks. Today the hooker — once he escapes the clutches of the scrum — is the fourth loose forward in the team with the licence to roam, and John Smit, a genuine heavyweight and in the winter of his career, is no roamer.

Those calling for Smit to remain at hooker are ignoring the prodigious talents of Bismarck du Plessis, a modern, abrasive hooker who brings far more than scrummaging to the game.

Smit, in his recent autobiography, is brutally honest in his assessment, both of his and Du Plessis’ qualities and physical attributes. He is in awe of Bismarck’s strength and ability, and generously remarks that the young Sharks hooker will grow into “one of the greatest front-row forwards the world has seen”.

In contrast, Smit readily concedes that, at 31 and at 123 kilograms, it is “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 ball­carries as me, or hit as many rucks.

“Bismarck is a bloody good player … his work rate is up there with Schalk Burger and he steals as much ball as the flanks.”

And the issues have not changed, either for the Boks or the Sharks, since Smit first made his move. If they want the best of both worlds, Smit’s leadership and experience, and Bismarck du Plessis’ mongrel and ability, there has to be compromise.

Certainly Sharks coach John Plumtree is not concerned.

“I think that John Smit takes unfair criticism as a tighthead,” he said this week. “Scrumming is an eight-man effort and you can’t blame one guy.

“We had Smitty as tighthead through the Super 14 season this year and had no scrummaging problems. In Auckland, against the Blues, we were up against just about the full All Black front-row, and Smitty was packing down against Tony Woodcock, but we out-scrummed them.”

Plumtree will keep rotating his front-row forwards and Smit may well be used on occasions at hooker as he looks to manage his front-row forwards.

“We are fortunate to have a number of big men and Springboks in Smitty, Bismarck, Beast Mtawarira, Jannie du Plessis and Deon Carstens in addition to a couple of young players coming though. So we will be able to move them around, but I don’t have any problem with John at tighthead.”

Plumtree may also have a freer hand in the 2010 Super 14. The Sharks, following the 2007 Rugby World Cup, had to make certain assurances to Bismarck du Plessis that he will be the number one hooker if he stayed on in Durban.

Du Plessis was understandably concerned that he will be forced to play off the bench and in the shadow of Smit by staying in Durban. Commitments were made and subsequently honoured. Du Plessis signed and Smit set about chasing down a new career as a reborn tighthead.

Bismarck du Plessis has now signed a fresh two-year contract with the Sharks and it is believed that no guarantees were given. Plumtree can now mix and match the talents of Du Plessis and Smit to suit the needs of the team — just as Bok coach Peter de Villiers has today.

Smit is convinced he is getting better as a prop and says he is exactly halfway through his two-year crash course on tighthead play.

After another season of careful management and experience in the front-row and, if the body and mind remain willing, he will be ready for a last hurrah — and the 2011 World Cup — as a tighthead.

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