Great, greater … John Smit

Keo, on his John Smit tribute, written 24 hours before the Boks won the World Cup.

Kirk … Farr-Jones … Pienaar … Eales … Johnson … Smit … somehow it fits.

Somehow the name Vickery seems out of sorts with those World Cup winners who have gone before the English captain.

Dare all of South Africa dream?

Most definitely because in John Smit they have a rugby leader who has not only made it fashionable to wear green but also exciting to want to dream green.

For four years and 44 tests Smit lead the Boks through torturous terrain and over a few smooth carpeted surfaces, but rarely did he get his reward. Most critics were only divided in apparent deficiencies in his game. The arguments were he was not aggressive enough, not strong enough, not mobile enough and just not good enough.

For four years coach Jake White defended him against a consistent chorus calling for others to play hooker. White said it took a special character to mould a South African team made up of such diversity. White said it took sacrifice and determination for any guy to play through four years of test rugby without missing a game. White, the critics retorted, only picked Smit because he liked him.

Then Smit tore a hamstring in the opening 10 minutes of the Springboks’ Tri Nations win against Australia at Newlands. And then the rest of South Africa saw why White had invested so much in nurturing Smit’s leadership.

Four tests were played and South Africa went from having one captain in four years to four captains in four successive tests. In those four tests matches Smit finally got an acknowledgement of his worth that should never have been a debate.

The four test matches that he missed were more powerful than the 44 he played because in his absence it was clear what his leadership meant to the side.

But it isn’t just the leadership thing that needs to be highlighted because that would be insulting his talent as a player. Smit deserves to be the starting hooker in the Bok team because he is the best in the country. Bismarck du Plessis will succeed him, but for now all the energy of a young man can’t match the guile of Smit’s test match experience.

In the build-up to today’s World Cup final much has been written about the 1995 heroes and their captain Francois Pienaar. But, in the words of the inspirational Morne du Plessis, South Africans need a new story, a new image and someone new to talk about.

In the next four years we need to be reflecting on Smit and the achievement of his gladiators.

White recognised Smit’s qualities as a 15 year-old schoolboy and there was further admiration when Smit lead South Africa to the under 21 world championship in 1999.

White tells the story of how Smit attended a pre-tournament media session and wasn’t asked one question because South Africa was given no chance of winning. The player’s response was to call a team meeting on his return to the hotel, speak of the insult and humiliation to them as a squad and implore his 20 year-old team mates to give the media a reason to ask some questions the next time.

“You had to be involved in that championship to realise what a special leader he was. Leadership came naturally to him and I knew that I would make him my national captain should I ever get the Bok job,” says White. “He has so much passion for South African rugby and that green and gold jersey. He has such respect for the rugby traditions and he was determined to add to what was already in place.”

Five years later White got the Bok job and the first thing he did was fly to Johannesburg, meet with Smit at the Sandton Mug and Bean and offer him the opportunity to captain South Africa.

Smit said he would only entertain the offer on the condition that he was good enough to first make the side. He said he never wanted to be picked because he was a captain first and then a player. He asked for a promise that if his form did not warrant it that he should be dropped. White said that would never be an issue and that he was a believer of picking his team first and then selecting the captain from those 15.

But it was White’s opinion that Smit was the best player in his position and unrivalled in his leadership.

This week, in Paris, White felt vindicated for backing the talents of the 15 year-old who first impressed him 14 years ago.

Smit’s ease with the media, calmness with his teammates and international popularity with French locals, neutrals and the foreign media were standout features of the relaxed Bok build-up.

He has the aura of Johnson and Fitzpatrick. He has the presence of Pienaar, but he doesn’t have the arrogance you find in so many test players.

Rugby, Smit has often said, is not the real world. Rugby, he knows, provides a bubble-like existence and that’s why Smit doesn’t take himself too seriously and is more comfortable walking in slops than on stilts.

“When I say it is not the real world I don’t mean it is not to be taken seriously. It is just I know the environment created is not how people live on a daily basis, so I’ve never been seduced by the sideshows. It’s the rugby that has always interested me and I’ve always enjoyed the responsibility that goes with leading a team, whether it was my school’s first XV, the Sharks or the Springboks. The way we play determines the mood of people and that’s a massive responsibility,” says Smit.

White, when he succeeded Rudolf Straeuli post the trauma of the failed 2003 World Cup and the infamous Kamp Staaldraad, asked Smit what he most desired as the Bok captain.

His answer wasn’t as simple as being a world champion in 2007. He said he wanted people to respect the jersey again. He wanted people to believe in the values of being a Springbok and he wanted schoolboys to dream of wearing that jersey.

“All he spoke about was the jersey,” says White. “He was determined that we create an environment where we don’t tolerate second best and that when a player moves on he hands the jersey over to the next guy having set a standard of excellence.

“He told the players from day one that you can’t ask for respect; it is something that is earned on the field. That’s been his theme throughout the last four years. Win or lose all he has asked of the players is if they can look the next guy in the eye and challenge him to match what they have done.”

Already the challenge is huge for the next guy. At 23.00 this evening it could be colossal for those who come after Smit and his World Cup warriors.

*Well 23.00 has passed and yes it was OK to dream!