Smit may hang up his boots

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

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.

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