Captain’s log

In the last issue of SA Rugby magazine, Springbok captain John Smit discussed the challenges of their centenary season.

‘One thing about being captain in the 100th year of the Springbok,’ says John Smit, ‘is that Saru hasn’t exactly made it any easier for us. I’m starting to sound like a stuck record, but if you look at our fixtures in June and July, then the Tri-Nations and England twice in a row at Twickenham, it’s a really tough year.’

A century after Paul Roos disembarked from the SS Gascon in Southampton and told the British press, ‘You can call us de Springbokken,’ a 28-year-old Engelsman is understandably uneasy about what lies ahead. ‘The real pressure comes not from this being our 100th year but from the standards that we’ve set in the past couple of seasons,’ he says. ‘Last year it was important to prove that by winning the Tri-Nations in 2004 we weren’t just a one-year wonder, and having, I think, achieved that, this year we have to improve.’

This means defending borders from the time the World XV arrives for a rust remover in the first week of June, to the second somewhat controversial Test in two weeks at Twickenham in December.

The World XV game at Ellis Park can be largely discounted. The opposition may
or may not be star-studded, depending on who turns up on the day, but it’s not actually an official Test and the result is largely irrelevant. But a week later, the trouble starts.

A year ago, two home Tests against Scotland would have seemed like a nice warm bath to get matters under way. Then the Scots went and beat France and England in this year’s Six Nations.

Frank Hadden took the helm at the start of the northern hemisphere season, replacing Australian-born Matt Williams, and Scotland wing Sean Lamont encapsulated what the change of coach had meant to the team. ‘Frank talks to the players, while Matt talked at them,’ he said. ‘It’s a completely different style of doing things and it brings out the best in us.’

Smit may have been playing in the green and gold only since 2000, but he has seen enough in that time to understand the importance of the kind of man management that Lamont is talking about.

‘I think everyone in rugby circles knows that Matt Williams was no fool, but the way Scotland improved this year just epitomises the fact that you can have all the experience you like, but coaching at the highest level is really all about having a rapport with players and being able to manage people,’ he says.

‘I think that’s what’s come right for the Scottish squad. If you look at the way they played in the Six Nations, you could see that there was more of an effort individually for the guy next to them. There was teamwork and spirit and what we in South Africa would call gees.

‘The fact is that if you put 15 or 22 guys together in this country, chances are they’ve all been playing since they could walk and there’s plenty of talent. The difference comes when you put that ability into a team environment that works and where the players believe in each other. Then they are always going to play above their fighting weight. Any team’s goal is not to be good, but to be better than the sum of its parts.’

Wise words indeed from a man who is going to be fed up of being in the spotlight by the end of the Springbok centenary, only to realise that he then has less than a year to prepare for the 2007 World Cup. Under the circumstances, his gracious front-of-camera style is going to be tested to the limit, but he has been around the block enough times to appreciate his privileged position; the 51st man to captain South Africa, 100 years after the Springbok emblem first leapt onto the famous myrtle-green shirt.

‘It’s not something you could ever plan, so I’m just very fortunate to be in this
position at this time, and I guess the one thing I hope is that this year we can enhance the tradition of the Springboks. It’s important in any walk of life to know where you’ve come from, but I think it’s particularly so with the history of the Springbok, which has had so many ups and downs and so much political intrigue through the years.’

Smit’s awareness of the centenary was really triggered by a photo shoot back in February. Canterbury, the makers of the current Springbok jersey, produced a replica of the jersey worn by Paul Roos in 1906. The SA Rugby Museum at Newlands provided an eight-panel leather ball used against the 1938 British Lions on their tour of South Africa. Thus equipped, a close-cropped Smit posed for the camera and the resultant image shocked him.

‘Putting on Paul Roos’s jersey and handling the ball that they used, it was just alarming to think how far we’ve come. Doing the shoot wasn’t that strange, but when I saw the finished photograph where I look like my own grandpa, it was amazing, because it kind of encapsulated all the arguments that you have over braais about whether the game is better or worse than it used to be.’

Natal has a rich history of providing Springbok captains, from the late Roy Dryburgh, through Tommy Bedford, Wynand Claassen and Gary Teichmann, yet all of those men played a similar version of the game to Smit. But for Philip Nel, the Natal-born captain of the 1937 Springbok tourists to New Zealand, the photo of Smit in Paul Roos’s gear would have seemed far more familiar.

Nel was a farmer in the Natal Midlands who used to ride his horse the 50km from Greytown to Pietermaritzburg to attend training sessions for his club. Astonishingly, Nel’s widow is still alive and last year, aged 98, she came to King’s Park as a guest of the union. Smit had the honour of meeting her and he said, ‘Imagine if we told our children that we rode a horse to training; they would just laugh at us. I can only hope that the game hasn’t come as far as the methods by which you get to training have!’

Smit is not originally from Natal, having been educated at Pretoria Boys’ High, thus representing the Blue Bulls at Craven Week. However, he is scarcely your typical Pretoria boy either.

‘I was brought up in Johannesburg, but my parents moved to Pretoria and I started playing rugby at the age of 11, which is very young for an English boy,’ he says. ‘There I was among all these boertjies who all knew what they were doing and I didn’t have a clue. Luckily, I was big enough. The first time I ever went to see a provincial game was at Loftus and I couldn’t tell you anything about the game, not even who the Bulls were playing, except that Naas Botha was playing and he kicked the living daylights out of the rugby ball!’

Smit was a high-profile capture for Natal after he left school and was fortunate to join the province at the tail end of a glorious era. ‘One of the greatest things about coming to Natal as an 18-year-old straight out of school was being able to be around the Springbok captain of that era, Gary Teichmann. And alongside him there were players like Adrian Garvey, Ollie le Roux, Robbie Kempson, André Joubert, James Small, Henry Honiball, the list goes on and on. As Gary was coming to the end of his provincial career, I was getting onto the field as a substitute. Eventually, I became first choice and it was just a privilege to play under a great captain like Gary. I can only hope to emulate him in my role now.’

Fitness permitting, it seems like a no-brainer that Smit will overtake Teichmann’s mark of 36 Tests as Springbok captain. He currently stands on 26, three short of Francois Pienaar’s tally, and for once in its tumultuous history, the current head that wears the crown rests relatively easy. Two years of conspicuous success under Jake White have bought both captain and coach time. Yet, even Smit is unsure what White’s plans are for the early-season Tests. Will he pick his strongest side or build slowly for the Tri-Nations?

‘I think the All Blacks proved on last year’s Grand Slam tour the value of having a squad of 30 players that are pretty much interchangeable. Having said that, maybe we read too much into Graham Henry’s tactics and, rather than developing all those players, it was really a way of softening the blow when he has to drop an established player.

‘Jake made wholesale changes ahead of the first Mandela Test last year and that put huge pressure on the team, but it worked out just fine and I think we are now in the position where we can pick a team from 30 players and know that whoever walks onto the field at the start of the match, it’s not going to make a huge difference to the way the team performs. That’s because the squad has been together a while and it helps remove the individual pressure because of the way we’ve performed over the last year and
a half.’

So we’ll have to wait and see who takes the field against Scotland, but by the time France arrive for a one-off Test at the end of June, we can expect White’s team to have a familiar look. Coach and captain both received flak for losing against France at the end of last year’s tour, but considering the players who were unavailable through injury and the fact that the halfbacks – Meyer Bosman and Michael Claassens – may never play another Test together, the Boks did damn well only to lose 26-20.

It meant that, over the course of the season, the two sides had played three times and each had won one, lost one and drawn one. Does that suggest that either side can beat the other at any venue on any given day? ‘From a personal point of view I think that’s right. I don’t think either team has the measure of the other,’ says Smit. ‘The next 18 months is very important, because I think France are going to be a supreme force in the 2007 World Cup with home-ground advantage.

‘When you play them you have to be prepared for anything, and while they may be regarded as a glamorous team, they also do the basics really well. They’ve got a great pack and a flyhalf and inside centre who really control the game well. It might seem like a cliché, but basically, whenever we play them, the game plan is to try and restrict the amount of good ball that their inside backs get.’

So the Springbok captain has a sensible grasp of what’s required ahead of a year featuring 12 Tests and an international friendly. He has done a little research into the past, but when he complains of an onerous fixture list, it’s worth looking at what lay in store for Paul Roos’s team in 1906.

They sailed from Cape Town on 27 August and played their 29th and final game in a Cardiff quagmire on New Year’s Day 1907. They won 26 games, drew once (against England) and lost twice (against Scotland and Cardiff). ‘Bingo’ Burger played 23 games and Roos 22. And in case you don’t think we’re comparing apples with apples, the four Tests against the home unions were played on successive Saturdays in November and December.

Only one opponent was significantly less threatening than those lining up to face the Boks in 2006. The boat home crossed the English Channel and Roos’s men played once more, against France at the Parc des Princes. Described by AC Parker as ‘more of a romp than a game, as French rugby was then in its infancy,’ the Springboks won 55-6. Ah, if only …

By Andy Capostagno