In the wake of a brilliant World Cup, Juan Smith remains the Springboks’ most hardened warrior at the frontline.
The dull thunk of rock meeting metal reverberates in the background. Over the phone, it really does sound as if the Cheetahs’ team bus is under attack. A metronomic thump greets my every word as I shout down the receiver to Juan Smith, who’s clearly on a different planet. Six months ago, Smith lapped the Stade de France clutching a shiny new addition to the Springbok family. Right now, he’s bouncing along a gravel road on the outskirts of Kimberley. I feel like asking him what he ever did to deserve this.
Smith, typically, is never one to complain. The archetypal hard man is likened to Springbok legends André Venter and Gary Teichmann, men who’ve always prized walking the walk over talking the talk. Both featured prominently in the Nick Mallett era when the Boks won the Tri-Nations and equalled the world record of 17 consecutive victories. Both were grafters whose performances inadvertently secured reverence reserved for legends of the game.
Is Smith in the same class, and at 26, is the comparison premature? Smith absorbs the question as the bus ploughs through another pothole minefield. A World Cup-winner’s medal sits on the mantelpiece in Bloem, and there are plenty who believe the Man of the Tournament accolade should rest at its side. However, the mere mention of Venter and Teichmann shatters this image, taking Smith back 10 years to when the two Springbok loosies were gods in the eyes of a young JBM Hertzog student.
‘I always looked up to Gary Teichmann and André Venter,’ he gushes. ‘They weren’t all that talkative, but their actions spoke loudest. I was privileged enough to play alongside André at the end of his career. He’s remarkably self-disciplined and his attitude is a real strength. I still look up to him, even more so given everything that’s happened [Venter was confined to a wheelchair in 2006 due to a crippling virus]. He remains positive no matter what the situation, and if I can adopt that attitude, it’s going to make me an even better player.’
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské played hooker for the 1998 Bok side and is well qualified to elaborate on the Teichmann comparison.
‘The players followed Gary out of respect,’ Drotské recalls. ‘He led by example. When the guys see Juan dishing out a big defensive hit, it inspires them in a similar way.
‘Juan’s grown a lot in the last three years and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going on to lead the Boks. Personally, I like a captain who’s physical. I prefer a man who’ll do all the talking through his actions on the field.’
Smith is already recognised as a leader in the Springbok structures and has skippered the Cheetahs for the past three seasons. But is he truly a candidate at Test level? It would appear it’s a responsibility he’s reluctant to take on.
‘I can’t say I’d turn down an opportunity to lead my country, but I’ve never seen myself as a captain,’ Smith explains. ‘I’m enjoying the responsibility at Free State, but to be absolutely honest, I don’t think I have what it takes at the highest level. You look at a guy like John Smit who has all the great qualities of a Test captain. We were fortunate last year to have seven or eight senior guys in that World Cup-winning side. I would love to continue in that sort of role, helping the captain on the field as a senior player.’
Former Bok and Cheetahs prop Ollie le Roux is aware of Smith’s reluctance, but he also realises why coaches prefer him in a position of power.
‘He was never groomed to be a leader; he was thrown into the job,’ says Le Roux, who’s also captained Free State. ‘John Smit’s captained at all levels, but it wasn’t like that for Juan. He leads by example and expects others to follow.
‘For instance, we had a terrible captain’s practice ahead of a big game last season. The guys were absolutely diabolical, dropping balls and getting everything wrong. I’m a believer that the captain’s practice doesn’t necessarily impact on the game, so I wasn’t too worried.
‘But Juan called the guys together. He was clearly pissed off and shat them out. After training, I spoke with him privately and asked him why he reacted that way. He told me he demanded excellence in training. That was the way it was for the Springboks, and he expected the same from the Cheetahs.’
Modern media seems to favour the glamour over the grit, as the thousands of pages dedicated to players such as Dan Carter and Gavin Henson attest. Thousands of Bryan Habana posters adorn the walls of teenagers everywhere following the World Cup. Dust aside this superficial layer and you’ll obtain a clearer rugby view that allows the unsung heroes to come into focus. Nobody can accuse Smith of deferring any of the dirty duties he’s afraid to take on himself.
‘He’s such a determined person,’ says Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie. ‘When he injured his knee in the Blues match this year, he could barely walk, but he refused to leave the field. Most players would have thought about Springbok selection at the end of the Super 14. Naka was trying to get him off and so was the team doctor, but being the kind of person Juan is, he waved them away. The younger guys see this and they can’t help but admire him. There’s no doubt that attitude will rub off.’
Springbok rugby is entering a new era. Bill’s safely stowed in the Saru trophy cabinet and with the appointment of Peter de Villiers, there are bound to be changes in personnel and playing style. The Bok coach would be a fool to neglect Smith, but the Cheetahs blindside is willing to earn his keep.
‘It’s an exciting time for South African rugby. We had an awesome season last year, but for me, it’s an honour every time I run out for the Boks. As a player, I’ll just look to keep doing what I did last year.’
At the time of writing, Smith’s future with the Cheetahs was less certain. Both the Stormers and the Sharks are scrapping for his signature, while financial minnows Free State are praying he remains loyal to the union that gave him his big break.
Teichmann played in a different era, but as captain of dominant Bok and Sharks teams, he understands the demands of self-motivation. Smith could stagnate if he remains at the Cheetahs when he should be building on the superlative form seen at the World Cup.
‘There’d be a public outcry if Juan left Bloem, but the reality is a top player wants to play in a winning team,’ Teichmann says. ‘For a guy like Juan, he needs to be on the front foot to realise his potential. It’s very difficult to shine if you’re getting pounded in other areas of the game.
‘I’m quite honoured to be compared to a player like Juan. Looking in from the outside, he seems the type of guy who puts his head down and gets on with it. His work rate is excellent and he carries the ball strongly. Unlike a lot of loose forwards, he also has the ability to read play exceptionally well.’
‘Juan is one of the best ball-carriers in world rugby, as his tremendous strength allows him to stay on his feet,’ remarks Drotské. ‘It’s hard to highlight one attribute as he is such a gifted player; one of the best loose forwards in the world. He really has no real weaknesses.
‘His performance in the line-out has come a long way since the early days, and he’s now a sure thing at the back. On defence, he’s learnt to read the opposition and has fast become one of the strongest contesters for opposition ball.’
Teichmann reckons Smith could still be a force at No 8 such is his natural feel for the game. But it’s at blindside where Smith has few peers in world rugby, although it is widely known he relishes a bruising confrontation with the All Blacks, and with Jerry Collins in particular. Teichmann says Smith’s versatility makes him potentially a better player than the belligerent Collins.
‘They are two quality players, but they are two different players. Jerry uses his strength to get across the advantage line at close quarters. Juan has more impact when he’s out in the backs. The reason for this is that he has the pace and skill to compete with backs of international quality.’
Getting older has taught Smith many things. He’s no longer the brash youth who’d initiate a bar brawl or drink his peers under the table. He’s become the quintessential family man, a model for the youngsters both on and off the field. It’s been a steep learning curve for Smith, and he’s only too keen to impart any hard-earned advice to the new wave of budding Springboks.
‘The role of the senior player is more demanding, but that in turn gives you more confidence. I can honestly say my own game has improved because of this leadership role,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to take too much credit, but when Duane [Vermeulen] arrived from
the Pumas, he was never a line-out option.
I tried to help him in winning his own ball and in the contest, and at the moment he is one of the best jumpers in our team. That’s my job; a senior player is always expected to help the youngsters.’
He is the first to admit pain comes with the territory. The rugby spotlight is no place for men of his nature, but those in the know will always raise a glass in acknowledgement to his efforts at ground zero.
Smith has already ascended to the pantheon occupied by Teichmann and Venter, but the next chapter of his career should determine whether he goes on to rise to even greater heights.
By Jon Cardinelli
– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby rugby magazine.