Beating the Bismarck drum

RYAN VREDE writes that Bismarck du Plessis’ cameo against Australia further underlined the fact that Peter de Villiers is undermining his World Cup campaign through his unwavering faith in John Smit.

A fortnight ago De Villiers was non-committal when asked for a response on his preferred hooker at the global showpiece, stumbling through a rebuttal about ‘horses for courses’ and being ‘blessed to have two of the world best’ in the position. However, it is an open secret that, if fit, Smit will start for the main pool matches and in the play-off stages. Reports from Port Elizabeth suggest that Du Plessis will start against the All Blacks, but his performance there will not alter De Villiers’ views on Smit.

De Villiers believes that in the context of the squad he will choose, one that features the bulk of the 2007 champions, Smit is the correct choice as captain. He cannot, however, build a water-tight defence for his selection of Smit ahead of Du Plessis for pure rugby reasons.

On the evidence of the last three Tri-Nations matches, Smit remains a competent Test hooker, but I don’t share De Villiers’ view that his leadership ability is so crucial to their cause that it should render Du Plessis’ claims for the starting berth null and void.

This is not an original criticism, but one that demands revisiting off the back of Du Plessis’ dynamic and powerful 30 minutes on Saturday, which included a couple of gainline-busting carries and breakdown turnovers, neither of which Smit managed in the preceding 50 minutes.

Smit, in his 2007 autobiography acknowledged that he was an inferior athlete to Du Plessis, but countered by adding that he gets the often unnoticed disciplines of hooker play done – ruck cleans, solid scrummaging, strong defence and the like. However, the game has evolved since then, and while it still requires a hooker adept in those facets of play, it also demands one who shares a similar skill set to the loose trio. Du Plessis is the embodiment of such a player, and illustrated this once again (he did so for the Sharks in Super Rugby as well) in Durban.

Yet he will have to be content with the role of impact player at the World Cup. This is ludicrous, but is a situation that will not alter because De Villiers’ ego won’t allow him to concede that he has made an error by backing Smit, when he should have cut him loose after the Lions tour in 2009. Indeed, such is his faith in Smit’s on-field value as captain that he reneged on his stated belief that he is not a prop, deploying him in at tighthead with calamitous results in the Kings Park clash. He would later say that their GPS information indicated that starting tighthead Jannie du Plessis was fatigued, but this excuse is exposed as a poor one when you consider he brought Du Plessis back on when Smit was consistently bossed at scrum time.

If that was a foretaste of how De Villiers will accommodate Smit when Bismarck du Plessis is introduced, there is much to be concerned about. Furthermore, using Smit as an impact player is futile because he doesn’t possess the technical qualities to be effective in this role. Considering this, the astute course of action would be to omit Smit from the World Cup squad altogether. But nobody has ever accused De Villiers of being astute.

The sense I get from reading and listening to the comments of some of the media is that it would be the brave call to make. I disagree – it is the logical one, and Du Plessis will continue to reinforce that assertion every time he comes off the wood.

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