Backing Bismarck

RYAN VREDE writes that there are no longer sound rugby reasons for John Smit to play ahead of Bismarck du Plessis at hooker with the Sharks or Springboks.

The Smit supporters club, headed by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, have been rendered silent after Du Plessis’ outstanding performances on the year-end tour and most recently, four rounds of Super Rugby.

Du Plessis is undoubtedly the outstanding hooker of the tournament thus far, justifying coach John Plumtree’s selection of him ahead of the national captain. The suggestion that Plumtree is pandering to the demands of De Villiers to manage Smit carefully is ludicrous. He is playing Du Plessis because he is an astute coach who knows that Du Plessis offers the side greater overall value than Smit does.

The 26-year-old would start in every elite Super Rugby side. The same cannot be said about Smit with any confidence. The student, so patient and respectful during his apprenticeship, is now schooling his mentor, and exposing Smit’s limitations through his sublime performances.

Du Plessis is the prototype of a hooker who flourishes under the law interpretations. His athleticism isn’t compromised by his appreciable physical constitution, and the combination makes him an attacking and defensive weapon in a way Smit has and never will be.

Smit’s value as a leader can also no longer be offered as a convincing argument for his inclusion. The Springboks succeeded without him on the year-end tour, losing to Scotland not because of poor leadership but tactical naivety and underestimation of their opponent. The Sharks have won four from four with Smit playing a bit-part role. Indeed he was watching from the substitutes bench while the Sharks launched their come-from-behind victory against the Rebels on Friday.

Plumtree, in hooking Smit with the Sharks chasing the game, inadvertently relayed the message that he believes his experience and leadership no longer demands his retention in those scenarios.

There are lessons here for De Villiers, but ones I suspect he will ignore. His tactical and technical incompetence, pride and misplaced belief in the man he brought back from Clermont in 2008 will see Smit start ahead of Du Plessis at the World Cup, at the team’s peril.

During the 2010 Tri-Nations De Villiers conceded that the experiment with Smit as a tighthead had failed and that he would be deployed exclusively as a hooker for the remainder of his Test career, which will conclude after the World Cup. Blind loyalty isn’t a justifiable selection policy and becomes more deplorable when the player omitted has consistently exhibited his superiority.

De Villiers likes to portray himself as a dog whose bark matches his bite. But it’s time for De Villiers to drop the bravado and show some brains and balls in selecting Bismarck.

* Read Ryan Vrede’s SA Rugby magazine piece arguing why Bismarck du Plessis must start ahead of John Smit for the Springboks in 2011 here.

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