In the build-up to Saturday’s Test against the Welsh in Cardiff, much has been made of the Springboks’ decision to accommodate captain John Smit at tighthead prop and the switch of Ruan Pienaar to flyhalf.
On the face of it, they look like risky decisions – especially against the current Six Nations champions – and will be the target of much of the Welsh Dragons’ fire on Saturday, but I think these two players have such fantastic rugby pedigree that they will come through with flying colours.
It’s well documented that Smit spent his entire, and extremely illustriously school and junior rugby career at tighthead, captaining the South African under 21 rugby team to victory in the 1999 World Cup, yet less than a year later he was making his Springbok debut against Canada at hooker.
There was no brouhaha about his lack of experience in the No 2 position then but it turned out to be an inspired move that would pay big dividends for Springbok rugby.
Smit is probably the most highly-regarded leader in world rugby with 78 Tests at the coal face of international rugby, more than proving he’s extremely well-versed in the nuances of frontrow play.
These sentiments were echoed by former Sharks, Scotland and Springbok hooker John Allan who said: “Initially I thought it would be a gamble because the tighthead is the anchor and a very critical position, but John made his Sharks debut at No 3 alongside me, and if I remember correctly in the first few games he came up against Gary Pagel and Justin Leonard, two of the best looseheads in the world at the time.
“John understands the tighthead role, has played in the front row all his life, and most importantly he has the correct mindset,” said Allan. “He has very strong legs but now needs to work on his upper body strength. I just hope they have the confidence to let Bismarck (du Plessis) take the throw-ins and let John concentrate on his prop duties.”
A player Smit can take inspiration from is in fact Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira who arrived at the Sharks academy as a No 8 and was promptly converted to prop. Over the past two seasons the Beast has come on such leaps and bounds that he’s made the Sharks No 1 jersey his own and ended this year’s Tri-Nations as the Boks’ first-choice loosehead.
Eddie Jones, who joined the Springbok coaching set-up just before last year’s World Cup, swears blind that Pienaar is the closest thing he’s seen to a Stephen Larkham.
Considering Larkham was Australia’s first-choice flyhalf from 1997 to 2007 on his way to 102 Wallaby Test caps, won a World Cup (1999), played in another final (2003) and picked up two Tri-Nations titles, this is high praise indeed. Another similarity is that Larkham began his career for the ACT Brumbies as an ungainly fullback who didn’t have the most convincing kicking game.
Wallaby coach at the time, Rod McQueen, was struggling to fill the void left by Michael Lynagh and to everyone’s surprise he opted for Larkham and it proved to be a masterstroke.
I believe Pienaar is a complete footballer, elusive with the ball in hand, strong in the tackle and whose accurate tactical kicking will be crucial in the heavy underfoot UK conditions.
Allan can’t speak highly enough of Pienaar.
“Firstly, he has the genes, his dad Gysie was a Bok fullback who played many games at flyhalf for the Free State,” said Allan. “Ruan’s such a talented player with an outstanding temperament, he’ll make the ideal flyhalf and we desperately need flyhalves.”Tweet