Back where he belongs

John Smit wants to keep wearing the Bok No 2 jersey.

‘Would you start at hooker if you weren’t captain?’ It’s a question that has John Smit rolling his eyes. ‘Aw, come on,’ says Smit, who’s had to deal with the question since assuming the Bok captaincy in 2004. It’s a question that’s become even more relevant with the rise of Bismarck du Plessis.

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His face undergoes a transformation; the annoyed countenance morphing into a look of patience reserved for the ignorant and uneducated. He finally leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head, completely at ease. He smiles in a way that says I’ll never understand.

Statements about Smit’s playing ability are usually tempered with talk of his value as a leader. Popular perception is that you need to accommodate Smit in the Bok starting line-up because he’s the skipper, not because he’s the best player in his position.

The decision to shift Smit to tighthead in 2008 seemed to affirm the conjecture. Coach Peter de Villiers admitted there were better tightheads, but felt the move was necessary since he envisioned Smit and Du Plessis playing in tandem at the 2011 World Cup.

Du Plessis sustained a serious neck injury towards the end of the recent Super 14, which ruled him out of the Tri-Nations. It was a blow for the Boks, but one that brought about a necessary change in thinking. Smit moved back to hooker, and the move won’t be as temporary as some may expect.

So putting the question to the 32-year-old again, I ask Smit if the rugby community will ever give him his due. Now that he’s back in his favourite position, will they acknowledge him as one of South Africa’s finest hookers? It’s a question that doesn’t receive an answer as much as an explanation as to why it’s the wrong question.

‘The people close to me appreciate me for the player that I am,’ he says confidently. ‘I don’t feel unappreciated, and I’m certainly not unhappy with what I’ve achieved. If I had a chance to rewrite my script, I wouldn’t change much. The move to tighthead was a massive challenge, but if I look back at 2009 when we beat the British & Irish Lions and won the Tri-Nations, it was one of the best years of my career, if not my life.

‘In 2008, I was at the stage where I was thinking a lot less about what was good for me, and more about what was good for the team. That’s why I put my hand up to play prop. I know there will come a time when what’s best for the team is for me to stand aside completely, and that decision lies with the Springbok or Sharks coaching staff. For now, my ambition is to be part of a successful team.

‘I get far more satisfaction out of winning a match or a series than being named Man of the Match or reading about my 9/10 review in the Sunday papers. It’s nice to be the hero, but it’s my job to make the other guys heroes. I want to be the best hooker in the world, but I get more satisfaction out of a win than personal plaudits.’

CJ van der Linde recently signed a six-month contract with the Cheetahs, while another Ireland-based prop in BJ Botha could be moving back to South Africa in the near future. With these two available, the South African front-row stocks have been bolstered considerably, although if required, Smit could still slot in at No 3.

There aren’t too many people who think Smit’s move to tighthead was a success.

Os du Randt, the new Bok scrum coach, believes Smit is a better bet at No 2, while another former South African hardman in Rob Kempson felt the decision to shift Smit was flawed.

‘John moved there to fill a void, and unfortunately, it didn’t work out, as results will confirm,’ Kempson says. ‘It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem was technically, as you can never tell unless you’re scrumming against a player.

‘Hooker is his strongest position and if he’s going to captain South Africa at the next World Cup, that is where he must play. Apart from his contributions in other areas, he’s unparalleled as a scrummaging hooker, with Gary Botha probably the second in this respect. If John is playing hooker, it will certainly make the job of whoever is playing tighthead that much easier.’

Bok forwards coach Gary Gold, on the other hand, doesn’t believe the move was a complete failure.

‘So many people focus on the Benn Robinson incidents [where the Wallabies’ No 1 embarrassed Smit during the 2009 Tri-Nations], but it isn’t easy to scrum against those smaller looseheads,’ says Gold. ‘The biggest priority of the scrum is synergy, so you can’t blame one guy, as all eight players need to scrum well. You also have to realise that he’s played less than 10 Tests at tighthead. There are a lot of technical things that need time to develop, technical things that help when you’re up against a shorter guy like Robinson, who can use your own physical strength against you.’

From a scrumming point of view, Smit admits he did all he could just to ensure the Bok scrum didn’t move backwards.

‘There was a lot of trepidation when I moved to tighthead in 2008,’ he recalls. ‘I had played tighthead before, making my debut in Super Rugby alongside Ollie le Roux and Chris Rossouw for the Sharks, but when I put my hand up to play it again in 2008, I was secretly hoping not to snap my neck. It’s a position where experience is crucial, experience I didn’t have, so I had to use a few other tricks to survive.

‘Over the years, when I was playing hooker, I saw what the loosehead would try to do to the tighthead, and I also knew what other tightheads didn’t like from a hooker. I used the knowledge gained by playing 80-plus Tests at hooker to my advantage.

‘If I look back at my time at tighthead, I’d have to say it was far more demanding to do my job as a captain from that position. We were under a lot of pressure at the scrum, and I did all I could to hold my own. It’s not as if we destroyed looseheads, but we often did enough to get that right shoulder.

‘We did fantastically well in other departments, but often people looked at the scrum and said we didn’t dominate. Obviously you want a Bok team to dominate everything, but what about all the rucks we hit, the tackles we made and the ball-carries?

‘The lowlight of my time at prop was the line of questioning. All the attention I got playing tighthead, it seemed like the media didn’t have anything else to write about. I had to try and diffuse the media, saying they should judge me at the end of a two-year period, because no matter what I said and no matter what the results were, the same story would come out every weekend.

‘Then you have a situation where your team-mates are trying to defend you and your coach tries to defend you, it was frustrating. Maybe the media persisted because it was an idea Peter de Villiers had driven, and any idea Peter drives is usually scrutinised by them.’

While Smit battled at the scrum, he delivered some industrious performances around the park. Gold said the Springbok management felt their decision to move Smit was vindicated and couldn’t understand why the public and media harped on about a perceived lack of dominance at the scrum.

‘There are eight to 10 scrums per game, but over 100 breakdowns, so we felt that with John’s mobility, defence and decision-making at the breakdown, he would be a great asset at prop,’ says Gold. ‘He adds plenty of value  as a ball-carrier. That first try in the first Test against the Lions is a case in point; he had guys hanging on to him as he went over the line, and had left Brian O’Driscoll trailing in his wake.

‘The experience of scrumming at prop will make him a better hooker. Physically he’s probably the strongest hooker in world rugby, and his strength is particularly uncompromising at the scrum. His physique is suited to hooker in that he’s the perfect height and has a powerful core. He’s very good at the hit, and because he works so hard at his squats in the gym he’s able to generate immense power.’

In theory, a Test team that struggles at the scrum can still get the upper hand if they win the battle at the collisions and breakdown. It’s a point that’s prompted plenty of debate, and Smit feels that winning a scrum gives a team a psychological edge over their opponents.

‘The scrum determines the pack’s confidence. You can’t just say we’ll hang in there in the scrums, but drive the opposition in the lineout and smash them at the breakdowns. It’s like the first punch in a fight. If one oke throws a punch and connects, the second guy is rattled and will be thinking about that first punch for the rest of the fight.

‘The Super 14 is very different to Test rugby, and the northern hemisphere competitions, where scrumming is vitally important, is somewhere in between. If your scrum is weak, you can’t keep the ball in there for too long because you may eventually concede a penalty. It’s about getting the balance right according to your game plan.

‘You can’t just pick a mobile pack and think you’re going to run the other team around the park. A team like France will see a mobile front row of say, Beast Mtawarira, Schalk Brits and John Smit, and just keep the ball in the scrum in order to milk penalties. Penalties can then result in yellow cards and suddenly you are in trouble. You have to decide what you want to achieve in a particular match, and a lot depends on who you are playing.

‘Having CJ and BJ back will see the Bok scrum transform into a completely different animal. BJ’s exceptional at what he does at the scrum, while CJ is a good scrummager, but he’s one of those guys who is also a good athlete. Then you have Beast, Bismarck and myself. If you have those five guys available, you have a lot to work with. It might not be the same front row five weeks in a row, but you can work that to your benefit and pick horses for courses.’

The Boks will be managed carefully in the build-up to the 2011 World Cup, a tournament that’s likely to be Smit’s swansong. There are fears that his best days are behind him and that starting a spent player in this tournament could prove disastrous.

Smit believes there’s sufficient petrol in the tank, and the muscle car that proved so difficult to flag down in 2007 will be operating at optimum efficiency in 2011.

Any talk of him playing hooker is greeted with an optimism and energy that should be transferred to the rugby pitch.

‘You can ask me to perform a role at tighthead and maybe hang in there for a year, but it’s not something I want to do for the rest of my career,’ he says. ‘I only have two or three years left, and not all of that time is going to be spent at Springbok level. I’m no spring chicken, so I want to use that time well by getting back to what I do best, which is playing hooker.

‘So in answering your original question, I want to perform well enough to remain part of this special team. I’ve never seen a group like this together and I wonder how long it will be before we see another group or era like this again. When we prepare for a match, we know it’s only a matter of getting our heads right, because we have the ability to beat anyone. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of something like that, because there’s no risk of complacency.’

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. Visit tomorrow to read Grant Ball’s analysis of Smit’s performance against the All Blacks in Wellington.