Saving Smittie

Keo, in his News 24 column, writes that John Smit is an accident waiting to happen.

His body cannot sustain the demands placed on him by the national selectors.

The Springbok captain has missed something like 23 minutes of test rugby since Jake White took charge in 2004.

It is one thing to back your captain. It is quite another to play him into the ground. If Smit breaks down between now and next June it will be no surprise. And if he does, then the last thing the national selectors or coach can do is point a finger at the provincial coach of the Sharks. Smit’s playing burdens are all national related. He has been rested, rotated and rehabilitated at his region during the course of the last two years.

It is at national level where he gets no playing respite.

In 2001 Smit played the most games by a South African in getting to 33. In 2002 he was crocked and only made it back into the national frame in 2003. His body broke down a year after the fact.

And this time it has been two years of non-stop international activity for the Bok captain. Marius Joubert is another case in point. In 2004 Joubert played 33 matches. He has never recovered, with each attempted comeback stifled by another injury.

The national structure blames the provincial and regional structure for a lack of conditioning. It is hypercritical because so much damage is done at test level. You only have to look at the Schalk Burger. He was an accident waiting to happen because of the pounding his body took at test level.

There is not a more physically demanding stage than the test arena. Super 14 rugby is exhausting, but playing for your country is physically tougher and mentally far more draining.

And Smit has copped it on both fronts. Captaining the Springboks is among the toughest assignments in South African business. Playing in the frontrow is one of the more demanding physical expectations. Yet Smit soldiers on because the coaching staff and selectors after two and a half years can’t tell you who is the next best hooker in the country and they can’t tell you who would be the next captain.

There is no succession plan to Smit, both as a player and a leader.

Jake White told the media a couple of months ago that in the absence of Smit he did not have a leader good enough within his squad to captain the Boks. At the time Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, Jean de Villiers, De Wet Barry and AJ Venter were in the squad. White said the second in line was Cats captain Wikus van Heerden.

White gave Van Heerden a belated call-up, but when Smit was rested for the World XV game the coach did not have the confidence to entrust the captaincy to Van Heerden. He picked him as an openside flank option, but gave the captaincy to De Villiers. It showed there was no succession plan in terms of the captaincy because Van Heerden was booted out of the squad and has failed to get another invite.

Of the hookers who have warmed the bench in test matches, Hanyani Shimange, Gary Botha and Danie Coetzee have accumulated 40-odd minutes, with Smit moving to prop to accommodate this meagre game time on most occasions.

The Bok management gave Shimange a start in the World XV match, but in official tests the longest he has played as a hooker is eight minutes against Wales in Cardiff. And even then White admitted at the post match press conference that he thought there was only two minutes left when he introduced Shimange and a host of other substitutes.

Asked if he would have made the changes had he known there was still eight minutes to go, White answered with an emphatic ‘no’.

To date White has been true to this sentiment, never giving Shimange more than two minutes in a test as a replacement hooker.

So we still don’t know who plays number two if Smit goes down because Shimange and Botha have both been axed and the latest bench warmer and tackle bag carrier is Chiliboy Ralepelle, the national under 21 captain.

Ralepelle is talented, but no coach is going to convince me that at this stage of his career Ralepelle is any stronger in the scrum than Schalk Brits, any more imposing than Brits or any more explosive than Brits. It remains a travesty that Brits’s talents have not been embraced.

There is a belief from the conspiracy theorists that White will not pick any hooker who could challenge Smit’s position. But in resisting quality back-up to Smit, the national selectors are doing their captain a disservice.

They are not aiding him by having plodders warm the bench. They are not putting him in a comfort zone. They are simply adding to his work load and pressure.

Smit this year has to be managed carefully. He has to be nursed through the next 15 months because he has become invaluable to the fabric of the current squad. He is what keeps them together.

Should he break down, which is very likely when you consider his workload, everything that White has built over the last two and a half years could give in as well.

And when it happens, the national coach, selectors and support staff need to take ownership of their decision to play him into the ground.

White uses the example of former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick to justify his decision to play Smit every weekend. But Fitzy was largely from the amateur era. In the modern test schedule no player can be expected to front three weekends in a row, let alone 28 tests in succession.