RYAN VREDE writes that the confirmation of John Smit as Springbok captain was expected, but Peter de Villiers is still battling with defining his role at the World Cup.
The Sharks have provided the blueprint for how to use Smit in the light of Bismarck du Plessis’ emergence as one of the pre-eminent hookers in the game. Sharks coach John Plumtree has remained resolute in his belief that Du Plessis is the superior hooker, and this is reflected in his consistent selection ahead of Smit.
Naming the 102-cap player as his leader for the World Cup didn’t come as a surprise, but De Villiers couldn’t decisively answer questions relating to how Smit would be utilised with the Springboks. He was, however, emphatic in saying: ‘For me, John is a hooker.’
One can only deduce then that he will not follow Plumtree’s lead in terms of Smit’s deployment. This creates a head-to-head scenario between the ageing master and his prolific student.
Smit has certainly shown he is a more than competent hooker through impressive performances in Du Plessis’ injury-enforced absence in the last fortnight. It was a level of performance that eased lingering fears about his capacity for another season of Test rugby, after he struggled to assert himself in 2010. Smit, in what we’ve seen from him in the last two weeks, is the second-best South African hooker on show at present, and remains a fine and respected leader.
However, surely, when you have a dynamic option (Du Plessis) at your disposal, you would opt for him ahead of an adequate one, which Smit has become? De Villiers should be acutely aware of what Du Plessis offers him in a game, shaped by the breakdown law interpretations, that has increasingly demanded that hookers are primary ball carriers, are athletic and quick, defensive weapons and are effective at the breakdown (although not as a primary role).
Du Plessis is among the elite No 2s in world rugby because he not only ticks all those boxes, but excels in those facets of play. That is a sterile measurement if you don’t also consider his galvanising effect on his team and the effect of his presence on the opposition. Smit pales in comparison when measured this way.
Smit, responding to the question of how he expected to be utilised in New Zealand, said he was willing to contribute to the cause in whichever way he was asked to: ‘If I play well in the coming rounds I can expect anything. All I can do is the best I can. If I can add value by being versatile then great.’ There was no question of him being diplomatic. You got the distinct sense that he was willing to play this role if required to. And he should be required to.
De Villiers didn’t offer any conclusive views on whether Smit possessed the qualities he looks for in an impact player either. I can’t see him filling that role effectively. Which leads one to believe that De Villiers may well back Smit as his run-on starter in the global showpiece.
Unless Du Plessis’ suffers a dramatic capitulation in form in the next few months, there’ll be no justification of such a decision.