Smit may hang up his boots
TODAY’S Test match against Ireland at Croke Park is the last in an epic year for the Springboks – and it could also be the final game in the illustrious career of the man who has driven the success.
John Smit’s initial goal when he came back to South Africa after the 2007 World Cup was to guide the Boks to victory in the series against the British and Irish Lions. After that he said he would take it season by season, and although he has said he would like to still be around for the next World Cup in 2011, he also said he would assess where he was at the end of this season.
Up until the end of the TriNations, there were signs that Smit was eager to embrace the challenge of being the first captain to lead back-to-back World Cup successes, but the decision to switch him back to hooker for today’s game should have changed Smit’s outlook.
When Smit spoke about 2011, he would have done so on the assumption that he would eventually settle at tighthead, where the demands in the tightloose are significantly less than they are at hooker.
With every game he played in the No3 jersey, the jury became less convinced that Smit had a future there at international level – but his switch back to his old position must surely introduce question marks over whether he has any future at Test level at all.
The reason for that is the standing of the man that Smit has displaced for the Dublin fixture, Bismarck du Plessis. In his book, Captain in the Cauldron, Smit himself describes Du Plessis as a freaky talent and a player who will go on to become the best hooker ever.
It is possible to envisage Smit playing hooker for the Boks for six months or so, but it is hard to foresee Du Plessis’ potential value to the team as a player being ignored for the 22 months that remain until the next World Cup.
Some critics have suggested that the Boks should adopt a horses for courses approach, with Smit playing tighthead and Du Plessis at hooker in the matches where the latter’s mobility and physicality is con- sidered crucial and the opposition scrum doesn’t possess players to bother Smit.
But that would hardly be ideal, and Smit’s friend and for mer coach, Jake White, doesn’t think such an arrangement would do justice to the players involved.
“John Smit is the most successful Springbok ever, all the statistics tell you as much, I really don’t know if he should want to be remembered as a player who finished off his career operating as a kind of stop-gap by moving between positions in every second game so that he can be accommodated somewhere,” said White.
But White also knows that his successor in the hot-seat, Peter de Villiers, faces a massive quandary as he plots the way forward.
“Peter has to decide what he needs more: John’s leadership skills or what Bismarck will offer him as a hooker going forward,” said White. “As John himself has said in his book, Bismarck is a freaky talent. So it is a difficult one either way, you’re either dispensing with an outstanding leader, or you are stalling the career of Bismarck for another two years. It is a massive quandary to face, and it is going to be a difficult decision to make.”
One thing White is adamant about is that Smit’s career as a tighthead prop was a nonstarter from the outset.
“I have never seen him as a potential tighthead and it hasn’t surprised me at all that the Boks have struggled in the scrums.
“I was sorry when I heard that John was moving to prop,” White added. “He is just such a nice guy and he probably thought he was doing it for the good of his team. But it never really worked out.”
The problem now is that it is hard to say whether Smit will be prepared to do the work necessary to get himself back into the condition he needs to be in to play hooker. His conversion to prop coincided with the addition of several extra kilograms, and in his book, Smit admits that he would be reluctant at the age of 32 or 33 to compete with other hookers in terms of their operating as an extra loose-forward.
The timing of the release of his biography, which came out two weeks ago, is a strong indication that Smit must at the start of this year have been giving serious consideration to calling it a day at the end of the season. As it is, he is contracted to the Sharks until the end of 2010, but he knows that should he decide to hang up his boots, the Sharks bosses would probably be happy to come to some agreement.
With BJ Botha making a big statement when he came on last week against Italy about the value of having a specialist tighthead prop, and CJ van der Linde also now back in the mix as De Villiers bends his policy on foreign players, it looks increasingly likely that the choice between Smit and Du Plessis won’t be a one-off.
The problem for the Bok coach though is he will know better than anyone the immense role that Smit has played in ensuring that the foundations laid in the Jake White years have been built on.
Smit is far more than just another captain, as together with Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield, he operates as a player-coach and even sometime selector in the Bok set-up. With the Bok coaches lacking experience for this level, the departure of Smit would leave a massive void and there is a perception that under the current regime he is indispensable.