‘I am not done yet’
24 Jun 2011
In an exclusive interview with MARK KEOHANE for Business Day Sport Monthly, John Smit insists he is the right man to lead the World Cup defence and that he has plenty still left in the tank.
‘It would be the act of a coward,’ insists John Smit. ‘Only a coward would be that selfish to bail out in the belief it will preserve a legacy.
‘In fact,’ he says, ‘to shy away from the challenge of defending the World Cup because the Boks may lose and I may be remembered as a captain who lost a World Cup and not one who won it … no … no … that’s not why we play the game. It has to be about the challenge; about doing something incredible; about creating history … this team is good enough to defend the 2007 title and I believe I have a contribution to make. If we lose I want to be at the heart of the battle and not all suited up sitting in a corporate suite listening to people say that if I had been there it would have been different, and me reflecting on how we won the 2007 World Cup.
‘The motivation, though, is to be there if we win … and I believe we can win. I believe we are a better squad now than in 2007 and we were a very good squad at that tournament.’
Smit is South Africa’s most celebrated and experienced Springbok captain. Outside a home unions Grand Slam tour victory he has led the Boks to every success. In the past seven years the Boks have won the World Cup, won the Tri-Nations, beaten the British & Irish Lions, never lost a home series, won at Twickenham, beaten France, beaten every team, won in Australia and (the apex for any Bok player) won against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
Many expected Smit to call time on his international career after the Boks beat the All Blacks in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 2009 to win the Tri-Nations. It would have been the fairytale ending.
A World Cup in 2007, a British & Irish Lions series win in 2009 and the Tri-Nations a few months later, with the All Blacks having been beaten (by the Boks) in three successive Tests, including Smit’s first-ever international success against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
‘Go now,’ screamed 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White. ‘You have nothing left to achieve. Which guy climbs Everest to plant a flag only to climb it again to take out the flag?’
White’s constant public condemnation of Smit refusing to quit international rugby was more than an irritation admits Smit, but he doesn’t believe it was the only reason the media started hammering him and elements within the public started calling for his axing.
‘Playing for the Springboks means there is no easy ride, no escape and never a place to hide. Captaining them means the scrutiny is even more intense. The rewards when things are going well are immense; the flip side is the vitriol is as hectic when you don’t play well and the team doesn’t win. I have no problem with that,’ says Smit. ‘I have always felt the media has been fair to me in their praise and criticism. It certainly didn’t help having Jake telling the media every week how out of shape I was and that my time as a Bok was over and that he wouldn’t pick me as a hooker. But I had to look at my own performances; what the team was doing and my influence in the team and on us potentially winning the 2011 World Cup.
‘Decisions about 2011 could never have been made in 2011, from senior players and from the coaching staff. Some people may not get that. A lot of planning has gone into this World Cup defence, and I think we all learnt lessons from the 1999 campaign when Gary Teichmann was dropped three months before the tournament, having led the team since 1996. His experience and his value as a player were definitely missed and [Bok coach in 1999] Nick Mallett has conceded he would have done things differently in hindsight.
‘None of us who were there in Paris in 2007 wanted to have to rely on hindsight post-2011, be it because we weren’t there or because we weren’t in the condition to be there.
‘If I or some of the senior players were doubting whether we could go the distance to 2011 then we had to make that call in 2009. It would have been improper and damn insulting to what we have tried to build as a squad since 2004 to play a waiting game.
‘We all had to commit to defending the title in New Zealand in 2011 after we won the British & Irish Lions series or we had to get out and give Peter [de Villiers] and his coaches two years to introduce new players and mould a team for the World Cup.
‘I made the decision in 2009 to stay and it was based on my belief that no World Cup winning squad has ever had as good a chance of defending the title. It has never been done and I want to be a part of something that hasn’t been done. As I already said, I owe it to myself to be on the field and not in the stands. If I gave it up in 2009 and the squad defended the title I’d have to live with a lot of regret and regret is not something I ever want to carry with me post-rugby. I’d rather take the risk of losing and being there, being true to myself and what I believe I can contribute.’
Those who refuse to acknowledge Smit’s value to a winning 2011 Bok campaign will argue Smit being at the World Cup weakens the team and will single out the 2010 season and Smit’s form as an international prop. It is not something he hasn’t heard before.
‘I started playing for the Boks in 2000. Then I couldn’t scrum, I didn’t have enough mongrel to be a Test hooker, I wasn’t strong enough, big enough, crazy enough and … and … and … pick whichever one you want. I have heard them all, at least one of them every time before every one of my 102 Tests. I am my biggest critic. I don’t kid myself and I have a support base of family and close friends who wouldn’t allow me that illusion or luxury.
‘When my form has not been up to standard I have taken it on the chin, put in more work and tried to fix it. I have never doubted my ability,’ he says. ‘I believe I do add value to the Boks’ World Cup campaign and that my overall contribution as a captain and player with 102 Tests makes the squad stronger, but I also believe I am owed no favours and expect none. If Peter said to me that for the Boks to win the World Cup it would mean me not starting a game at the World Cup I’d sign on the dotted line. It has to be team first and individual aspirations second. It has always been what has made this core of players so successful. I’d know if being there was a negative because there are too many of us who have been together since 2004 and those strong personalities wouldn’t tolerate a passenger. They’d have wished me well, thanked me, suited me up and sent me on my way to that corporate suite.’
In a 2009 interview with SA Rugby magazine Smit said: ‘I don’t want to be the guy who keeps going long after he should have called it a day. I’ve felt sorry for players who have tried to keep going when all the signs were pointing at the door. I hope it will never be me.’
I recall the interview and his quote and suggest there are people feeling sorry for him. And the sympathetic ones are some of his biggest supporters. Smit concedes 2010 was not a good year, but says 2006 was equally horrible.
‘We were a minute away from a sixth successive Bok defeat in Rustenburg against the All Blacks. They were 20-18 ahead and they gave away the silliest of penalties. If it wasn’t for Andre Pretorius’ winning kick we would have all been gone by the end-of-year tour. Jake wouldn’t have survived, I would have been gone with him and a new coach would probably have done an overall on the squad.
‘A year later we were world champions with the same players. You need good fortune in sport and you also need to never give up on yourself if you truly believe you have it. I believe this squad does still have it. In fact, they had it more than four years ago because we as individuals and a unit have matured and grown enormously in four years. I believe I still have it. Last year wasn’t good. I was alternating between prop and hooker, my weight was up because of the positional switch and I was struggling with injury.
‘To miss the end-of-year tour in 2010 to undergo a neck operation was a blessing. I got on the scale after the operation and I weighed 127kg. I told myself: “Come on Barney. This is bullshit. This isn’t what you committed to in 2009. Prop or hooker … it doesn’t matter … get your neck and your conditioning sorted and go out there and help the Boks make history.” Physically, six months later, I am in as good a shape as I was in 2007.’
Smit weighs 115kg and is injury-free. The ongoing struggles playing prop haven’t gone away in Super Rugby, but it is when he has played hooker that he’s looked as good as at any stage of his career.
‘I am not done yet. I also know the value of experience. I went to the 2003 World Cup with youngsters hoping for a miracle. In 2007 we had more experience and it was defining to how we managed the pressure and played.
‘In 2011 we will take the most experienced Bok team to a World Cup. It will take a very good side to beat us and if one does there will be no regret from me that I didn’t walk away in 2009. But as I keep on saying, the reason to stay on was to win and not lose. And this generation of Bok player knows how to win.’
– This article first appeared in the July issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is distributed FREE with the newspaper on the second last Friday of the month.