Heyneke Meyer couldn’t have asked for a better leader than Jean de Villiers during this season of transition, says former Springbok captain John Smit.
Smit’s Test days are over, but he continues to follow the Boks as closely and as passionately as any South African fan. Speaking to keo.co.za from the Saracens clubhouse in St Albans, he was quick to laud the new guard of Meyer and De Villiers and what they’ve accomplished in a short space of time.
It is also clear to Smit, even from his far-flung viewpoint in the leafy English countryside, that a strong team culture is beginning to take shape.
During an international career that spanned 11 years and 111 Tests, Smit captained the Boks on a world record 83 occasions. There were giddy highs and gutting lows, and ultimately Smit obtained an unparalleled understanding of what it means to be a leader at rugby’s highest level.
In Smit’s opinion, De Villiers has the makings of a great Test captain. Never mind that Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger were all considered options prior to the Test series against England. Never mind that it took season-ending injuries and an avalanche of red tape to bury the three front runners and elevate De Villiers to the top of the captaincy pile.
As Smit is keen to emphasise, De Villiers’ appointment should be recognised as an important one for Springbok rugby.
‘I think he’s been outstanding. However it came about, I think we can all be grateful that it did,’ the former Bok captain said.
‘Jean has stepped up, he’s handled everything that’s been thrown at him. He’s spoken a lot of sense while at the same time not giving much away, and has represented in a mature manner.’
De Villiers is renowned for his quick wit as well as his affinity for a practical joke, and often this side of his personality has been misinterpreted as a failure to take his rugby particularly seriously.
It was for this reason that some doubted his aptitude for the captaincy, but very few naysayers remained following the series-clinching victory in Johannesburg. Two days later, Meyer instated De Villiers as the team’s captain for the rest of the 2012 season.
Smit watched the series against England closely and picked up on some interesting trends with regards to the captaincy. Again, he was impressed by the manner in which De Villiers conducted himself.
‘Jean is one of my closest mates because we played together for a thousand years,’ Smit said in jest before adopting a more serious tone. ‘He was always the guy who created the fun, the guy in our team who had a chirp or a joke, but at the same time he always had that leadership ability within him.
‘I’m not just talking about speaking eloquently at press conferences. His timing on the field, the way he approaches referees during a game, has been particularly impressive this season. A lot of new captains will jump on a referee’s back in order to make their point. But Jean has chosen his moment and remained calm throughout.’
De Villiers led the Stormers to a conference title in 2012 in the absence of regular captain, Schalk Burger. But leading a nation is a very different prospect, as Smit confirms.
‘There’s a big jump between captaining a Super Rugby team and leading your country,’ said Smit. ‘Having said that, Jean has adapted well. There wasn’t one time during that England series where I thought “maybe Jean should have done that differently, or maybe he should have made a different decision”.
‘He’s 31 and is probably not going to lead the Boks at the next World Cup, not that I’m the one to make that call, but it’s probably not going to happen. For now, I think he’s an amazing transitional captain for Heyneke.’
The Boks went on to win the first two Tests and draw the third, and it’s the results that Smit marks as significant. It shows that the right people, read the coach and captain, are in place, and that given enough time, this team may replicate the feats of the Boks of 2007 and 2009.
‘I was very impressed with that first game considering the lack of time they had to prepare,’ said Smit. ‘It is a credit to the talent in the country, and hopefully that is something South Africa will always have.
‘Heyneke’s challenge is to put all of that talent together, to build a team that can operate even when the best two players are having an off day. I don’t know Heyneke and have never had a conversation with him in my life, but I think he is the kind of guy who can make that happen.
‘You need superstars in rugby but you also need a big focus on the team aspect. It’s about balance, that’s the tricky part, and the good coaches know how to achieve that balance.’
Looking at where the Boks are at the moment, Smit is optimistic about the future. They may not be the favourites to win the Rugby Championship in 2012, but they are heading in the right direction.
‘If you can beat England twice and draw once when you are rebuilding, with a limited amount of time and a massive amount of injuries, then you are in a good space. I don’t care whether they are scoring seven tries or seven penalties, as long as they’re winning I’m happy,’ Smit said.
‘But I will also always look at how the Boks perform because I’m a player myself. Often I will look at when they perform badly like they did in the third Test. They still managed to sneak a draw, and for me that was a good sign.
‘Heyneke is saying and doing all the right things and hopefully he sticks to that. He’s got an unbelievable track record and hopefully he can bring what he created culture-wise at the Bulls over to the Boks.’
The series victory against England marked a bright start to a new era of Springbok rugby, but the Tests against Australia and New Zealand should provide a more accurate measure of what is a vastly different team to the one led by Smit.
And yet, before they undergo the sterner examinations against some familiar foes, they will need to pass two preliminary tests in Cape Town and Mendoza.
‘It would be foolish to look at a game against Argentina as a practice match before playing the Aussies and New Zealanders,’ said Smit. ‘I think Heyneke will view this game as a challenge, and he will want to take on Argentina at their strongest point, which is their forwards. It’s going to be hard work, so I think the performance in the first Test [against Argentina] won’t be as convincing as some may expect.’
Smit did temper this statement by reflecting on the strides that were made against England.
‘The Bok scrum surprised me in that England series, I thought England were going to be very powerful, but the Boks rose to the occasion and did very well.
‘I can’t see Argentina running over us in the forwards. When last did Argentina run over an opposing pack? That would be when guys like Federico Mendez were playing 15 years ago. They do have a reputation, but it hasn’t really been a reality over the last couple of years.
‘For South Africa, dominating up front should be the priority. The Argentinian pack will be confrontational, and the Boks will want to vanquish that challenge before bringing their backs into the game.’
By Jon Cardinelli, in London