When John Smit shifted to tighthead prop the move was widely condemned but will packing down at No 3 rescue his Springbok career? Ryan Vrede finds out.
The discussion with Springbok coach Peter de Villiers is still etched into John Smit’s mind. Hooker to tighthead. It was an ultimatum veiled as a suggestion. Bismarck du Plessis was the strapping bull-calf in the herd, and he was making his presence felt.
Du Plessis’ physique suggests he was hand-crafted by God himself, with the sole purpose of crushing his opposing hooker’s vertebrae at scrum time and extracting carbon dioxide from the lungs of those who dared venture down Du Plessis Drive or those who stood in his path when he sets off on runs that are at times so enthralling, it’s a shame they aren’t accompanied by a soundtrack – something like ‘Danger Zone’ from Top Gun.
In the fast-evolving modern game where pace, power and handling skills are expected to be standard features for hookers, not bonuses, Smit represents the old, the outdated. Du Plessis is the ideal.
It’s not an indictment on Smit. He remains one of the pre-eminent hookers in world rugby. But not the package Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, through his decision to punt for Du Plessis as his first-choice hooker, told the rugby world he was looking for.
The rise of a worthy challenger to Smit was inevitable. It was never going to be the talented but limited Gary Botha. Chiliboy Ralepelle may yet take the reins, but he is a Smit clone – burly, powerful and hard working – but hardly Du Plessis. Adriaan Strauss and Schalk Brits are men who offer only in part what De Villiers seeks. Du Plessis is the rolling thunder that the ELVs demand a hooker to be. He always seemed poised to take ownership of the No 2 jersey.
Re-invention was forced on Smit. But even if it hadn’t been, one suspects the realisation that it was needed if he hoped to see the British & Irish Lions series he’s spoken at length about since the World Cup triumph would have dawned on him.
Smit doesn’t see it as a negative thing. Rightfully so. His stated belief that Du Plessis will develop into the world’s best hooker is not unfounded. ‘It’s not about surrendering a position. Bismarck is going to be the best hooker in the world, and I want to do everything I can to ensure this team is the best it can be. If that means I have to be the baggage boy or play tighthead, then so be it,’ he told the media shortly after the positional switch was confirmed.
It’s a testament to his selflessness that he is prepared to bow to a young buck, when secretly he must believe that he is still good enough to command a run-on start at hooker.
Of course, after just 70 minutes packing down at tighthead for the Springboks on their year-end tour, any assessment of his aptitude for the role would be a flawed one. A true measure of him can only be made after an extended period.
Smit’s coach at the Sharks, John Plumtree, acutely aware of the importance of continuity in one position, will give Smit the opportunity to prove himself at tighthead against some of the southern hemisphere’s elite in the Super 14. It’s a move he acknowledges is not ideal – ‘I still think he is a very, very good hooker’ – but one made with the interests of Smit in mind.
‘John needs more game time at tighthead if he is going to be ready for the Lions tour,’ Plumtree says. ‘But you have to bear in mind that we also have Jannie du Plessis in our squad, who is arguably the best tighthead in the country. I say that with no disrespect to John, but Jannie has far more experience in the position. So we’ll rotate the two of them, but John’s value is that he is a fantastic hooker as well, and he will play there at certain stages of our 2009 Super 14 campaign.
‘In my opinion, there’s no way of saying for certain whether the move from hooker to tighthead will have prolonged his career from a Springbok perspective,’ he continues. ‘I’m not in a position to comment on that, but from a Sharks point of view we still believe he is a very good hooker. That said, if any player has the character and ability to make the switch successfully, it’s John.’
When the announcement that Smit would be the Springboks’ premier tighthead prop was made, eyebrows were raised at the exclusion of BJ Botha, who was widely regarded as South Africa’s best No 3 prior to his move to Ulster.
Botha is understandably disappointed with the snub, but refuses to allow that to cloud his judgement of his successor.
‘I think he will make the transition fairly easily,’ says Botha, who was also an SA U21 hooker before switching over to tighthead. ‘He’s a world-class player and will be able to adapt without much fuss. He’s covered tighthead for Clermont in the French Top 14 and we all know how much emphasis the French put on their scrumming and he came through there unscathed.
‘I also thought he did extremely well on the year-end tour. I’m not concerned that he’ll be dominated, Smitty will be fine.’
Botha reinforces his view by pointing to the fact that the likely Springbok front row for the Lions series will play together throughout the Super 14 campaign.
‘Beast, Bissie and Smitty’s familiarity is a plus,’ he says. ‘Combinations are crucial in rugby, and their relationship means they’re not coming into Tests cold and having to get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
‘It’s a massive bonus to have the Springbok front row playing Super Rugby together. Which other country has that advantage? You hit the ground running. That’s hugely beneficial.’
Botha is relatively optimistic about Smit as a tighthead, but his views are certainly not widely held. The decision to shift Smit from hooker to tighthead has elicited a fair deal of criticism from some heavyweights in the game, not least of all former Springbok coach Jake White.
When asked early in his tenure what position he considers most crucial, White said: ‘The most important guy on your team is your tighthead prop and your second most important guy is your reserve tighthead prop.’
White, who played a central role in Smit’s conversion from an SA U21 tighthead prop to hooker, is firm in the belief that Smit shouldn’t be that ‘important guy’.
Prior to the Springboks’ World Cup quarter-final clash against Fiji, an injury to CJ van der Linde meant that Smit was in line to start at tighthead. White shot down those suggestions with scorn and still feels strongly about the issue.
‘John is one of the greats of world rugby. New Zealand would never have done that to Sean Fitzpatrick. They just would not do that to their captain,’ White said. ‘Bismarck du Plessis is an outstanding young player and his time will come. But John Smit is South Africa’s best option at hooker.’
Former Springbok Cobus Visagie knows prop play. He was part of Nick Mallett’s successful ‘98 and ‘99 Springbok teams, and he later joined English side Saracens, where he established himself as the premier tighthead prop in the league and arguably in Europe.
‘You can’t tell me that out of all the provincial teams in South Africa you could not find one specialist tighthead prop good enough to play for South Africa,’ he says. ‘I can’t understand the decision. John is a very good hooker but an ordinary tighthead prop.
‘Look, I think he could do a good job but he could never dominate quality looseheads. Physically and mentally he has the goods, and the technical skills can be taught.
‘But scrumming at tighthead is like developing the perfect golf swing. You can teach all the technical aspects of how to achieve this, but you only reach that state of perfection after years and years of practice.
‘John won’t have that, even if he plays in that position for the entire Super 14, which he won’t do because Jannie will also be given an opportunity.
‘I know he’s played tighthead for SA U21, but I don’t need to explain that there’s a vast difference between Test rugby and junior international rugby.
‘There are the subtle things that give you an advantage in getting a good right shoulder most times – the things that keep you going forward. You only learn those with experience and he has very little at Super Rugby or Test level.
‘I hope John does well against the Lions. I really do. But I feel he is being done a disservice by being played out of position.’
The debate will rage throughout the Super 14 with public opinion, the volatile beast that it is, swaying weekly. There is no question that Smit’s Super examination by doctors Woodcock, Van der Merwe, Crockett and their ilk will provide a more comprehensive answer into the question of whether the gamble will yield big rewards or significant losses.
This the latest in a plethora of challenges the Springbok captain has faced over the past five years. Success and failure in that period have built a certain resolve in the man – a determination to succeed, irrespective of the magnitude of the challenge. The smart money would be on Smit rising to the challenge once again.
– This article first appeared in the Jan-Feb issue of SA Rugby magazine