New Master

RYAN VREDE writing in SA Rugby magazine says Bismarck du Plessis must be the Springboks’ first choice hooker in 2011.

John Smit was deep in the bowels of the Stade de France being stitched up for a head wound while the 2007 World Cup final was in its dying minutes. The room was soundproof. There were no monitors on which to follow the drama, nothing to offer clues of whether his Bok side had surrendered their 15-6 lead.

He need not have been concerned. His replacement, the future, the kid he’d invested in, was a more than capable deputy. He was replaced by what would become a technically and physically better version of himself – a sensational surrogate.

Bismarck du Plessis fed a pressure lineout on his 5m line with the confidence of a Test veteran. His performances building up to that moment had intimated that he had the aptitude for Test rugby. That lineout feed was an infinitely more emphatic statement. It said there was life after Smit.

However, nearly three years from that coming-of-age moment, Du Plessis still finds himself stuck behind Smit. This despite the student having been saturated by his master’s counsel and no longer having any use for it.

He has watched Smit’s steady demise, which reached its nadir in 2010, and would certainly have felt for him, never more so than when he missed the tackle on Ma’a Nonu that ensured his 100th Test would be forever forgettable. But equally, Du Plessis would have been acutely aware of the opportunity that has been birthed from Smit’s struggles.

This is why the year-end tour was definitive for him. With Smit nursing a neck injury, it represented an opportunity for Du Plessis to challenge Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’s unfailing loyalty to Smit; a loyalty that at this point ensures he is guaranteed a ticket to the 2011 World Cup and the No 2 shirt. If Du Plessis’ performances since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him for the 2010 Test season didn’t sway De Villiers’s stubborn stance, nothing will.

The magnitude of the matches he excelled in – a Currie Cup semi-final against the defending champion Bulls and a final against WP, both of whom were loaded with Springboks, and a high pressure Test against Ireland – further illustrates his immense talent and, pertinently, ever-improving temperament.

In the semi-final, his hand stayed sure despite the presence of lineout scientist Victor Matfield, who has built his reputation on decimating the confidence of better, more experienced hookers than Du Plessis. Furthermore, in a match where the tackle-point dominance would be decisive to the outcome, Du Plessis was immense.

He explored new depths of his ability in the final – his 19 tackles (the most in the match) setting the tone for what was undeniably one of the most brutal defensive displays ever witnessed in the domestic showpiece’s history.
In total he made 80 actions – an action defined by any contribution (a pass, ruck clean, tackle, etc) – in the match. Consider that the ball was in play for 36 minutes and that translates to two actions per minute, which is freakish in a match of that calibre and against world-class opponents. It is a work rate matched only by Richie McCaw and Schalk Burger.

If anyone had forgotten about him due to his injury-enforced absence, those performances were a stark reminder that he is a national treasure.

Inadvertently Du Plessis, through his excellence, has turned the spotlight on Smit, whose displays in 2010 drifted between ordinary and downright diabolical. His fitness levels had slumped and at times he had resembled a man trying to suck wet concrete through a straw. Yet we were told that Smit was in optimum condition, as good, the Springbok conditioning coach told us, as he was in his prime at the 2007 World Cup. Two weeks later De Villiers was sympathising with Smit, telling the media: ‘He doesn’t know what it is to feel good anymore.’

It was a farce. De Villiers hasn’t shared the responsibility for his captain’s physical condition, despite having
a telling influence on it. He engineered Smit’s switch from hooker to tighthead prop in late 2008. The move, he said, allowed Du Plessis to be accommodated in the front row.

It would emerge later that Du Plessis was being falsely led to believe he was an integral part of the plan. Smit unintentionally exposed the deception in his autobiography, Captain in the Cauldron, when he wrote: ‘People asked me how it felt being sidelined to prop but it wasn’t like that. Peter told me I would remain his first-choice hooker, and if it didn’t work out at tighthead, I would revert to hooker.’

It didn’t work out, with De Villiers telling the media prior to the start of the 2010 Test season that he had dumped the tighthead experiment and that Smit would be deployed exclusively as a hooker.

The problem was that in preparation for a season in his new role, Smit had packed on pounds that he later struggled to drop when required to play hooker at the Sharks in light of Du Plessis’ injury.

If Super Rugby, transformed by new breakdown law interpretations that expose physical and athletic inadequacies, is an inhospitable place for an overweight 32-year-old hooker, Test rugby against the free-running All Blacks and Australia is hell.

Smit was acutely aware of his limitations even before the introduction of the amended interpretations of the ruck rules. ‘I realised that it’s a lot more difficult at [my age] to carry on playing as a 123kg hooker at the ever-increasing pace of international rugby,’ he said in his autobiography, referring to 2009. ‘I’m honest with myself and I know I can’t do what Bismarck does – I’m not physically capable of it.’

He continued: ‘Bismarck is a bloody good player; he’s a thorn in the side of the opposition. His work rate is right up there with Schalk Burger’s and he steals as much ball as the flanks. I was open to the move to prop because it would prolong my career and also allow the coach to select Bismarck.’

How much more so now, with tactical pragmatism brutally murdered by that assassin, enterprise, is Smit haunted by the truth that he no longer casts a shadow that hides Du Plessis? Indeed it is Du Plessis, whose physical constitution and athletic prowess is perfectly suited to the demands of the game in its current form, who towers over his tutor.

Sharks coach John Plumtree’s revelation that Du Plessis will be his first-choice hooker in 2011 (Smit will play prop), offers further evidence that as a hooker Smit represents a bygone era. Smit will also be vexed by the knowledge that his reputation as the glue that binds the Springboks was tainted in a poor 2010 season. The perception, steadily eroded since a woeful 2009 year-end tour, is perilously close to being shattered.

The question demands an answer: If Smit’s ability to lead the Springboks to victory doesn’t compensate for his physical shortcomings in relation to the requirements of a new-age hooker, what is his value? It is a question De Villiers must answer honestly, devoid of sentiment and fast.

Benching Du Plessis is like having a ballistic missile in your arsenal but choosing to fight a war armed only with a Magnum .45. Smit was integral to the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup campaign. His inclusion could be justified based on his exceptional leadership ability and the emotional immaturity of his squad.

That cannot be offered as a justifiable argument any longer, not with Test centurion and three-time Super Rugby-winning captain Victor Matfield available as a viable replacement, neither with a senior core of Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie taking responsibility for various facets of play. But especially not with Du Plessis offering an option better suited to the demands of the game in its high-tempo guise. Ignoring Du Plessis’ claims for a run-on start will be terminal to the Springboks’ cause.

De Villiers will tell you it takes a brave man to make the call to cut Smit. But bravery should never be associated with selection. Science, research (which takes trends in the game into account), form and logic should inform those decisions. With that criteria applied, Du Plessis’ case would be an irrefutable one.

This article first appeared in the December 2010 edition of SA Rugby magazine.

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