The Smit conundrum

JON CARDINELLI writes that John Smit will see out the Tri-Nations but the 2011 World Cup may be a bridge too far.

On Sunday, I half expected to receive a press release announcing Smit’s retirement from Test rugby. The Bok skipper was shattered, physically and emotionally, following his 100th Test. It is a milestone that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, as it eradicated all doubt regarding the Boks’ decline and confirmed Smit isn’t fit enough to compete at this level.

I wonder what the conditioning coaches will tell us on Monday. Last week, Neels Liebel claimed Smit was as fit as he was in 2007. Some television stations ran clips of Smit playing in 2007, and it was plain to see how much leaner and meaner the Bok captain was in his prime. It’s a question I’ve asked before: why do the Bok management insist on insulting the public’s intelligence?

Perhaps they know that the South African community wants to believe that Smit is up to the task. It wasn’t hard to get caught up in the emotion when John Smit, a rugby legend, took to the field on Saturday. You saw him for what he was in his prime, and what he achieved at the helm of the Boks for the better part of six years.

But early in Saturday’s game, a couple of lineout errors dampened the euphoria. With the missed tackle at the death, the celebrations ceased, and in his post-match offerings, the player admitted he’d let the team down. It was a performance that would have given detractors who’ve criticised his fitness this season more ammunition.

Smit told me in a SA Rugby magazine interview that he will always put the needs of the Springboks before his own. He made the outrageous move to tighthead in 2008 because it was what the team needed. He did it even though he feared for his own neck.

He told me this year that he had unfinished business and felt it would be best for the team if he moved back to hooker. He admitted that a time would come when riding the bench or standing aside completely would be in the team’s best interests. He said all this with the 2011 World Cup in mind, but unfortunately, the time to depart may have arrived a year early.

Peter de Villiers has planned to rest Smit and the senior players over the Grand Slam tour, which means the last two Tri-Nations Tests are their final international outings for 2011. It becomes complicated when you consider that Bismarck du Plessis will be making his comeback shortly and will in all probability re-establish himself as the country’s premier hooker on that Grand Slam tour.

Can the Boks afford to drop Smit? It’s been clear from the outset that the senior players are running the show, and that sooner or later the flaws of such a system would be exposed. The coach is not up to it, but that is nothing new. De Villiers has been loyal to Smit, and will stand by him. Is that what’s best for the team when Du Plessis is not only superior, but when Smit is no longer up to Test standard?

His captaincy has so often proved the difference in tight games (like the first Test against the Lions), but on Saturday, we got an insight into how his flagging skills and fitness can cost the Boks matches.

As a colleague of mine always reminds me, this is South Africa, not Romania, and we don’t accept anything but the best. It’s not just an attitude, but a standard set by men like Smit when they were at the top of their game. If he wants to do what’s best for South Africa, he should stand down while there’s still time to prepare for next year’s World Cup.

An extended break will allow him to recondition, but there needs to be a sense of motivation. Getting that massive frame back into shape at the age of 32 isn’t going to be easy, and the message needs to be sent that there will be no passengers selected for the World Cup squad.

Smit needs to justify his place in the Bok team. He may feel that he’s a year away from retirement, but he needs to ditch the mentality that he just needs to hang on. He’s a brilliant captain, but it’s time to start leading by example.

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