John Smit has unfinished business with the Boks.
World Cup-winning Springbok captain John Smit tells me he will be the first to know when it is over for him as a rugby player. He also tells me close friends ask him why he wants more of the pressures of Test rugby when he can have the freedom of an overseas-club contract.
What more is there to achieve after captaining your country to the World Cup? They asked him that question when he accepted national coach Peter de Villiers’s offer to lead the Springboks in 2008. You can only lose, they said. They also told him that when he said yes to De Villiers. Smit disagreed with them then and he disagrees with them now.
These are close friends of Smit’s. These are people who care about him and know what he went through between 2004 and 2007 as captain of the Springboks. These are people who are protective of their friend and whose opinions Smit respects. But Smit is a man who knows himself better than anyone else knows him. This is a man who told World Cup-winning coach Jake White to drop him if he wasn’t playing well enough. This is a man who told his players they could never lose to England in the World Cup final and before the tournament told the South African public it would be a tragedy if the Boks did not win the tournament.
Smit, as he often tells me, won’t say something if he doesn’t believe it.
‘If I am playing like shit, boet, I will be the first to admit it and tell you,’ he says in reference to reports of his good form in the French Top 14. Speak to those same people who Smit emphatically told not to worry when it came to the 2007 World Cup final, and they’ll tell you that Smit had privately told them to be very worried about the 2003 World Cup. There is and never has been any bullshit when it comes to Smit. He was schooled in honesty, and if charity begins at home, then the Smit mantra is that honesty begins with a look in the mirror.
If he didn’t have the confidence in his own ability or the belief in the Springboks this year, he would not have said yes to De Villiers. He would have walked away with the memory of Paris, a man enriched with a World Cup-winner’s medal and a leader who had experienced one last taste of victory as a Springbok against Wales at Millennium Stadium last November.
But, says Smit, doing that would have made him a coward.
‘If I wanted out because I feared the next opponent or the next challenger to my position, then I would be a coward. You have to fight for what you believe in and you have to be prepared to take on the challenge of the next guy or the next team,’ says Smit. ‘I want to be part of a Bok team that wins in 2008 and not be that guy in the stands commenting on what I did as captain in 2007. I know I still have it in my body and in my mind. I am 29 years old and feel the best has yet to be achieved.
‘It would have been a convenient point of departure after the high of the World Cup. Perhaps to the outsider it would also have been the right time to go, and maybe that is why some people close to me questioned whether I would do myself justice in being part of a new set-up.
‘Had I not been prepared to continue, then I know I would not have been true to myself professionally and personally. I have always said I would be the first to know when I am not good enough any more or not prepared to push myself. When that time comes, I will walk away very quickly and let in the guy with greater hunger. For now, I am that guy with the hunger.’
You don’t fight to win a world title only to not want to defend it, he adds.
‘If I was finished as a player, then fine, but the World Cup in France was never the end for me. I never stood there holding the trophy thinking this is it. I stood there thinking this is what I worked for between 2004 and 2007. I thought of it as the beginning of being part of a world-champion team and not the end of anything.’
Smit, even before the World Cup, had signed to continue his rugby in France. He was transparent in his dealings with the South African Rugby Union and he was honest with himself about his international prospects. He did not think he would be done any favours by a new coach, and he certainly didn’t want any. He wanted to ensure he looked after his family financially and he also wanted the cultural experience of something different. The uncertainty about his Test future had nothing to do with whether or not he wanted to continue but more specifically about whether the new coach would be interested in what he had to offer.
De Villiers, in a meeting in Cape Town, made it very clear he valued Smit’s pedigree as a world-class player and a captain.
‘It remains the greatest sporting privilege for me to be involved with the Springboks. When I met with Peter in Cape Town, I told him that I would be honoured to be involved in any way. I also told him I was prepared to play under another captain if he felt that was what was best for the team. My parting words to him were that I never wanted a guarantee under Jake and the same applied to him. If I was not good enough as a player, then I did not want to be selected. And I told him he would have my support, whether I was picked or not.
‘In our meeting he had come across very much as a winner who wanted what was best for the Boks. He spoke with passion and he has the energy any guy needs for this job. I left the meeting very encouraged about the future of the Boks, regardless of whether I was to be a part of it.’
De Villiers, a month after the meeting, publicly confirmed Smit’s appointment. It was a huge call and a brave one because, within an hour of the press release being sent out, Saru deputy president Mike Stofile criticised the decision. De Villiers remained adamant he had made the right rugby decision for the right reason. Smit, said De Villiers, was crucial to continuity.
Players felt the same way, and Smit says he was overwhelmed by the positive response he got from players.
‘You are cut off a lot from off-the-field happenings when you are not in South Africa, and it can get pretty isolated being in France. In some ways that can be a good thing because it means I just focus on the next training session and on ensuring I get it right on match day. It can also be lonely because the focus here is on what is important to the French national team, and my interest obviously is what matters for the Boks.
‘On the day I was announced as captain it really did feel like I was home again. My phone rang a lot that day, and players were very enthusiastic and very upbeat about the international season. I was very flattered by their response and I was also very flattered that Peter would entrust me with the leadership of his first Bok team. Had I felt any other way, then I would not have been right for the job, because you can never assume it is your right to lead the Boks. It is a privilege. End of story.’
When friends told Smit he could only be a loser after winning the World Cup, he rejected the argument by reminding them he had never been part of a winning Springbok team in New Zealand. When they said it was better to be remembered as part of the World Cup era, he responded by saying it would be even better to be part of two World Cup-winning eras.
‘We are the champions and we are the No 1 team in the world. I get annoyed when people question whether we can beat Wales at home. The question is: can Wales compete with the world champions in their own backyard?
In the last four years, we prided ourselves on making every Test in South Africa the most difficult for any opponent to win. We lost once to France and twice to New Zealand in four years. In that time, we beat everyone, including the All Blacks three times and the Wallabies six times. We can never lose that hunger or set a standard in which we accept losing at home is in any way acceptable.
‘We also have to have that mentality when we go on the road. We’ve done well in Europe but have always struggled in Australia and New Zealand. In the last few years, we came close on two occasions to beating the All Blacks in New Zealand. We were 90 seconds away in Christchurch and four minutes away in Dunedin. I know we can win there because our players are good enough.
‘I also know how much respect there is out there for the Springboks, and it is a respect we can’t give away. We have to use that advantage and build on what the guys achieved in Paris. I am not the only one who feels that way.
The majority of the World Cup squad know that was not the end point but rather a stop on the way to more success. If these players can keep that desire and the next generation of player can feed off that passion, then we will be in a good state.’
By Mark Keohane
This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue is on sale Wednesday, 14 May.