JON CARDINELLI says the Sharks have provided the solution to the John Smit conundrum.
Peter de Villiers may be blind, but the answer’s there for all to see. Smit must go to the World Cup as a leader; not as a frontline player. That’s not a contradiction.
De Villiers has criticised the Sharks for their present management of Smit. He’s made it clear that he wants Smit playing hooker at the Sharks and at the Springboks.
But Sharks coach John Plumtree has had other ideas. Smit has played just 18 minutes at hooker in the 2011 Super Rugby competition. While it seems clear to De Villiers that Smit is a hooker, the Sharks believe that he better suits their purposes as a reserve prop.
Plumtree and company are not at fault. Bismarck du Plessis is in the form of his life. He’s not only the best hooker in the country, but one of South Africa’s most important players. Du Plessis is a crucial cog at the set-piece and a bully at the breakdown. The Sharks need him to play as many minutes as possible in the big games. The Boks do too.
Smit struggled when he was shifted to tighthead at the end of 2008, and failed to make a successful transition back to hooker in 2010. He shed a lot of weight in the 2011 pre-season, but at 33 he doesn’t offer as much grunt and dynamism as Du Plessis.
The Sharks have at times included the bustling Craig Burden on the bench, preferring to deploy Smit as a reserve prop. In seven appearances, Smit has featured four times at loosehead and twice at tighthead. He may be given another crack at hooker this season, but his real value in the games that matter is as a reserve loosehead.
There may be an argument to start Smit at No 1 for the Boks, as he has done in three Super Rugby matches thus far. But to do so would deny the Boks another dynamic player. Beast Mtawarira continues to improve at the scrum, and his work-rate around the field is tough to match.
Mtawarirra and the Du Plessis brothers are likely to form the Bok front row at the World Cup with Smit providing support from the bench. Smit told SA Rugby magazine last year that he would play off the bench if it was best for the team. If the first eight rounds are anything to go by, Smit is making good on his word.
The truth is Smit still has a lot to offer as a leader. De Villiers has committed to Smit, and it’s no secret that the Bok captain and senior players play a big role in the running of the side. He may not be indispensable as a frontline player, but he’s crucial to the World Cup cause.
Victor Matfield is the natural successor to Smit, but his captaincy has been less than inspiring over the past 12 months. He made some dubious calls as the Bulls’ skipper in the 2010 Currie Cup semi-final, and wasn’t at his best on the Boks’ subsequent tour of the Home Nations.
The 2011 season has also witnessed a disappointing effort, as unlike Smit, Matfield doesn’t possess the underrated ability to stay on the right side of the referee. It’s something he needs to address, as with the Boks’ robust reputation, you need a charmer wearing the captain’s armband.