It’s fitting that John Smit reaches his century against the mighty All Blacks and his only regret in a decade of Test rugby is not having played more for the Springboks.
The Bok captain will play his 100th Test for South Africa this Saturday. He’s tried to keep a low profile in the build up to this game and maintains the team’s needs outweigh any trivial cause for celebration. The Boks are 0 from 3 in this year’s Tri-Nations and are desperate for a result that will deny the All Blacks a clean sweep of wins in 2010.
Nevertheless, a defeat at Soccer City will not erase Smit’s monumental contributions to Springbok rugby. He’s led the Boks to two Tri-Nations titles, a win over the British & Irish Lions and of course, a World Cup crown in 2007.
It was incredibly apt for the piano player in the dining area of the Palazzo Hotel to be tapping away to ‘Memories’ as I walked through to see Smit. It’s been a career of massive highs and desperate lows. It’s a career that’s yet to run it’s course, as the 2011 World Cup will be his swansong.
‘It’s been a nerve-wracking week,’ he told keo.co.za. ‘I was speaking to one of my former coaches the other day about my career. It’s like a batsman at the crease: you get into the groove and once you pass 50, you realise you’ve accomplished something, but you’re keen to push on. As you get to 90 you know you’re incredibly close to something special.
‘I’ve been blessed in so many ways throughout my career, and Saturday is just another example. There’s only one team I could have picked to play in my 100th game, and that’s the All Blacks.
‘Monty told me that I could become the first player to win in their 100th game for the Boks, and I laughed because he’s the only other player to surpass 100 [Montgomery reached the milestone in the 19-0 defeat to New Zealand in 2008]. I do hope he’s right, though. The result is certainly more important than one guy running out for his 100th game.’
Smit came off the bench in the 2000 Test against Canada to win his first cap, and has been on the winning side 63 times in 99 games. He’s endured the madcap philosophy of Harry Viljoen, as well as a Rudolf Straeuli tenure defined by Kamp Staaldraad and the nightmare 2003 World Cup campaign. He was made captain in 2004 and together with Jake White built a team that captured South Africa’s second world title. He told SA Rugby magazine recently that 2009 was the best year of his career, if not his life, but he still believes there’s more to be achieved.
‘If I look back at my career, I could say that things have changed every season. I went from a 22-year-old who cleaned Andre Venter’s boots (unfortunately nobody shines my boots – youngsters today have it easy) and carried the water bottles to a 25-year-old that was more established. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve also been around to see how rugby itself has changed.
‘If I think about the lows, I will have to look at the Tests that I missed. There was a time when I played under Harry [against Italy in 2001] that I was injured and had to be subbed for Lukas van Biljon. Lukas had a blinder and was named Man of the Match, and I didn’t see a starting jersey for a long time [Smit started only two of the next 10 matches].
‘But all the lows have made the highs worthwhile. My career is something that I’ll only be able to reflect on in about 10 or 15 years time when I’m having a beer with my son.’
Smit turned the attention of the conversation to Saturday’s clash and was frank when asked about the Boks’ performance Down Under.
‘We were well below our best; we only have ourselves to blame. We don’t win too many when we travel there, but the kind of results we got were very disappointing.
‘The All Blacks haven’t changed a whole lot since last year, and I think the big problem is that we’ve allowed them to play more. We’ve identified that our execution let us down. It’s important that we prevent them from playing the way they want to.’
Smit will become the 14th Test player to reach his century and will be the first hooker to achieve the feat. Bok lock Victor Matfield will join this illustrious group when he plays Australia at Loftus Versfeld next week.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg