Smit’s captaincy complexities

John Smit’s job is one of the most unique in world sport, writes Mike Greenaway in The Mercury.

Smit was recently asked about the complexities of captaining the Springboks and he used a Richie McCaw anecdote to illustrate the colourful path a national captain of this country must tread.

McCaw and Smit shared a room in London last year for a Barbarians match (imagine being a fly on the wall in that room?!) and each did their share of media duties in that time.

Smit recalls: ‘I was lying in bed doing an interview with an English newspaper, and I thought it was pretty standard fare we were going through, but when I hung up, a surprised Richie said: “Mate, I did not mean to eavesdrop on your call but was that an interview?!” I said, “Yes …” and he was astonished at the line of questioning which incorporated apartheid, the quota system, whether there was a difference in captaining different cultures and races and what my views were regarding the status of transformation of rugby in SA.’

It was at that point that Smit had confirmation that his job is one of the most unique in sport – leading a former ‘whites only’ team in the New South Africa.

‘It is an amazing responsibility,’ Smit admits. ‘I often look at my fellow compatriots in New Zealand, Australia etc and wonder how they would cope with captaining our country. I get the feeling the toughest part of their week is deciding whether to go for poles or not on Saturday.

‘But I wouldn’t change my role for the world as I have learnt so much about my country and how special it is to be involved with all walks of life in the work that I do, and I truly believe it is our diverse nature that makes us a country of survivors. I am an Afro-optimist. We have come a long and difficult way and it amazes me that no matter what is thrown at our emerging nation, we still progress and prosper with every unfolding year.’

Smit on Saturday will earn the distinction of having captained an international team more often than any other person in the history of rugby football (60 matches as captain  in 86 Tests).

And what makes that all the more special is the circumstances he has mentioned. To captain the rugby Springboks through six years of political turmoil and interference and still have the gas in the tank to lead the Boks to a Tri-Nations title (2004), a Rugby World Cup triumph (2007) and a series win over the British & Irish Lions elevates Smit into the company of South Africa’s Greatest Ever Sportsmen/women.

Jake White was once asked what made Smit such a good captain.

He said it was Smit’s understated but extremely powerful virtue of total honesty that won him friends and incurred no enemies. Smit, he says, disarms any potential dissenting voices with his completely natural and open leadership.

No agendas, no drama, just a regular guy who is very good at his job.

‘Let me put it this way,’ said White. ‘A Springbok team contains Afrikaners, Englishmen, coloureds and blacks. It has parochial foes in Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions. It is a recipe for war! Yet in all the years of John Smit’s captaincy, there has never been one unhappy customer, not one voice of rebellion against his leadership. He is the glue that holds the Springboks together. The man is a legend!’

– Elements of this article are based on an extract from John Smit’s autobiography, which will be published by Highbury Safika Media in November.