Bismarck du Plessis hopes to do his mentor and captain proud by producing a strong performance against Samoa this Friday.
It’s been a burning issue in South Africa since 2008, and the international media has stoked the coals of this debate at every opportunity since the Boks’ first arrived in New Zealand in early September.
Scribes from around the world are confounded by the decision to favour John Smit over Du Plessis. Most have described Du Plessis as the best hooker in the world, and nobody is arguing against the view that Smit’s best days are done.
It’s become something of a sideshow at press conferences, as the non-South African pressmen fire the same question at Du Plessis every time he fronts the media: ‘How does it feel to sit on the bench when you’re the best hooker in the world?’
To his credit, Du Plessis has dealt with this line of questioning admirably. It will remain one of the great tragedies if Du Plessis doesn’t start in the play-off matches at this World Cup, but the robust No 2 is determined to put the team’s ambitions ahead of his own.
And don’t talk smack about one of his heroes and mentors. After a training session in Taupo on Monday, Du Plessis was at pains to convey his respect for Smit. Du Plessis will start against Samoa this Friday, and he wants to dedicate that performance to the Bok captain.
‘I hope that I can fill John’ shoes,’ Du Plessis said. ‘John has played well in this World Cup and has really led from the front. It’s great for me to get a start, but I also see this as an opportunity to repay John for all that he has done for me.’
Du Plessis went on to speak about his early days at the Sharks, and listed Smit as a key role player in his early development. The student has since surpassed the master, but in his own eyes, Du Plessis still has a lot to achieve if he’s going to measure up.
‘John’s achieved a lot both as a leader and a player, he’s done a lot for this team.
‘For me personally, he’s been a real mentor. I remember arriving from Free State as a 19-year-old, and my lineout throwing and scrumming weren’t up to standard. John helped me improve in these areas; we put in a lot of hours on and off the field. I have immense respect for him.’
Smit should play off a bench that’s likely to include as many as five forwards. It’s clear the Boks are taking the physical challenge of Samoa seriously, and Du Plessis pointed to the islanders’ scrum as an area of strength.
‘Samoa are very dangerous, especially in their back three. They are also very structured and a lot of their players compete in the English Premiership so they are used to a high standard of rugby,’ he said.
‘They have scrummed superbly, especially in that previous game against Fiji. It’s one of their main weapons and I’m sure they’ll try and use it against us on Friday.’
The Boks battled at the breakdown and collisions in their World Cup opener against Wales, and while they have improved in these areas against Fiji and Namibia, they realise that the minnows aren’t anywhere near as formidable as the top-ranked teams when it comes to forward play.
Samoa are also not as accurate and imposing as the world heavyweights, but they will provide the Boks with a good workout before the play-offs.
‘We look at it as having four games left,’ said Du Plessis. ‘No team has ever won the World Cup after losing a game in the pool stages. We also want to keep improving week after week and maintaining an upward curve.’
By Jon Cardinelli, in Taupo