JON CARDINELLI writes that Peter de Villiers has failed the Springboks by favouring John Smit over Bismarck du Plessis.
‘Don’t be surprised if Bismarck starts the big games,’ a source close to the team told me last week. By that point, Smit had started the Boks’ first three World Cup matches, but there was still a strong belief that Du Plessis would wear the No 2 jersey in the play-offs.
Before Thursday, Du Plessis had pledged his support to his mentor and captain, although privately he may have expected to start the big games. When the team to play against Namibia was named, Du Plessis told an Irish journalist that he’d accepted his role as Smit’s understudy, but following the announcement of the Boks’ quarter-final line-up, he cut a dejected figure at the team hotel.
When he was interviewed, there was none of the good humour that had characterised his media offerings earlier in the tournament. There was also a rumour that he’d reacted badly to the news that he would be riding the bench, and that the head coach was unimpressed with this reaction.
De Villiers calls it a bad attitude, I call it a bad decision. Not for the first time in the last four years, the Bok coach has favoured Smit over Du Plessis even though it’s become increasingly evident that Smit can no longer meet the standards of an international hooker, let alone match the trend-setting Du Plessis.
Smit is also no longer the indispensable leader he was during De Villiers’s early years. On the 2010 tour to the Home Nations, Victor Matfield proved himself to be a capable leader in Smit’s absence. When he was handed the responsibility at this World Cup, Matfield admitted that the captaincy wasn’t as demanding when you had leaders like Bryan Habana (73 caps), Jean de Villiers (71), Jaque Fourie (68), Schalk Burger (67), Danie Rossouw (62) and Fourie du Preez (61) in the side.
There can be a case made for Habana’s exclusion, but the rest of these players deserve their places regardless of their age. The same cannot be said of Smit, and you have to wonder if the reasons around his selection are truly rugby related.
There will never be another John Smit. He’s already the most decorated Bok captain of all time, and his achievements are all the more remarkable given what he’s had to endure from an off-the-field perspective.
It was during the turbulent times of 2008 and 2009, when De Villiers was at his controversy-inciting worst, that Smit needed all of his experience and diplomacy, and behind the scenes, Smit worked to ensure the right calls were made in terms of selection and tactics. While he had already achieved so much prior to 2008, his value and contributions during the first two seasons of De Villiers’ tenure should never be underestimated.
When I interviewed Smit in April 2010, he told me that he would continue to put the team first. He said that the time may come where he would need to step aside, either to warm the bench or support the team as a non-playing squad member. He said this with conviction, and his past deeds both on and off the field gave me no reason to doubt that he would make good on his promise.
I couldn’t help but think about that conversation when Smit was announced as the starting hooker for this Sunday’s quarter-final against the Wallabies. The senior players have a big say in selection and strategy, and so I felt Smit’s selection didn’t align with his commitment to put the team first. By marching on as the starting No 2, he is doing the Boks no favours. By standing in the way of Du Plessis, he is, ironically, doing his country a disservice.
De Villiers will also need to accept responsibility for this situation. He may feel that he owes Smit something but the reality is that a Bok coach should always place the needs of the team above the needs of individuals.
Du Plessis is right to feel aggrieved. The best player won’t start in the No 2 jersey this Sunday, and this decision could cost the Boks’ in the decisive battle up front. It could cost the team everything they’ve worked for over the past four years and lead to an embarrassing quarter-final exit on par with that of Rudolph Straeuli’s side of 2003.
Through the weak management of De Villiers and Smit’s refusal to face the fact that he’s a spent force, the rugby world has been denied the privilege of seeing Du Plessis in his prime on the greatest stage of all. From a South African perspective, the decision to favour Smit has robbed the Boks of the stronger, more dynamic starting option, and it’s likely to be a decision the entire nation will come to lament.