Cape Town – In the first of an exclusive two-part interview with Springbok forward coach Gary Gold, conducted by Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, he talks specifically on captain John Smit’s brave transition from hooker to tighthead prop.
On evidence of the past few weeks and months, can we now brand John Smit a fully-fledged tighthead prop?
Absolutely. From my point of view it’s been a frustration for this entire year to try to convince people to start branding him that. The transition began before the end of last year; we got Plum’s (John Plumtree) buy-in to it and at the time Balie (Swart) at the Sharks. They did a lot of work with him in pre- and post-season which is the type of relationship you do need. He went on tour for the Boks and did very well against Gethin Jenkins. Then he continued to develop at No 3 in a couple of Super 14 games, even if I’d have liked him to play one or two more. But we’ve now played six Test matches this year with him at tighthead and I think the proof is in the pudding. And like any tight-head, he’ll have a couple of exceptionally good days and a few he’ll see as ones he can improve on. In my relationship with him on a daily basis, we both know there are a couple of technical issues we can improve – we know what they are and work on them.
Have you always been a firm advocate yourself of his switch from hooker?
Definitely, and for a couple of reasons. First because he wasn’t moving into a position he was completely foreign with. He’d played prop at age-group level and you don’t forget some of those (skills). That said, asking an experienced hooker to move to one or three is still a transition — suddenly you don’t have anybody on one side of you at scrum time. Secondly, was strength an issue? It wasn’t. And then technically and mentally he was always likely to be up for the challenge. So I was always a firm believer he could make the move. Of course he remains a rookie in certain ways: when he comes up against a Tony Woodcock, it’s a case of a 50-cap loosehead against a 10-cap tighthead …
Just a few days ago Smit said he didn’t envisage another change back to hooker. Was that a sure-fire signal of his own contentedness with the new role?
Yes, I would hope so. I think he feels he’s getting better with every game, and we’re starting to see some dividends. With great respect to John, who has been an exceptional hooker over 70-odd Tests, that position in the present Springbok team is something we acknowledge has to be as a “fourth loose forward”: he will be the first to admit as he gets a bit (older) that his mobility does not necessarily lend itself to that. But then there are also attributes to his tighthead play that very few in that position can boast — like in the tackle he can get back on his feet and steal the ball. So we’re very lucky in those respects.
Will he get even better, as increasing street-smartness creeps into his play at No 3?
Ja … and I honestly think he has to. He’s started very well, possibly caught some people off-guard, but they might go away and say “we know what the next trick is”. John is aware this is a position where you can get a proper spanking; that you can’t just pitch up in it. He has to be thinking: “I don’t want a Phil Vickery day at the office.” That’s foremost on his mind. He’ll admit he relies very heavily in his new role on the three key men around him at scrum-time: Bismarck du Plessis next to him, Bakkies Botha behind and Juan Smith when he’s on the right-hand flank. That’s a key tighthead pod, if you like, for the Boks. Then Beast (Mtawarira) obviously has to work really hard on the left side to aid the equation.
When you consider that he’s faced looseheads Messrs Jenkins, Sheridan, Woodcock and Robinson in quick succession lately, it’s been a pretty rapid “apprenticeship” for John, hasn’t it?
Yes, and just maybe the cherry on top is when we play France at the end of the year and he comes up against Nicolas Mas or … well, whoever they do choose, he’ll be a monster! The French pride themselves on high-quality scrummaging. But John will pretty much have experienced everything by the end of the year. I agree with you: this winter he’s certainly been put through the mill. He hasn’t had a Georgia or a similarly “easy” Test to get any false sense of his capabilities. That’s all good, really, as we build up to hopefully having John go right through to 2011 for us. He’s played not only the best individuals but the best scrumming units this year.
To the observer’s eye, it seemed he was taking progressively more strain from Benn Robinson as the Newlands Test against the Wallabies wore on … is that a fair statement?
Fair comment, absolutely. I see it as a real opportunity. What I mean is that we won the game convincingly, and it was great we had another wakeup call. There were an extraordinary amount of scrums in that game, and Australia moved our heavy pack around quite a lot, as they probably intended. It was a tough game for John, and it made him realise that you have to work harder against shorter, more (nuggety) opponents. So it was educative and most useful – I’d have hated it if things were just plain sailing always, because you have to learn to deal with trouble some time, don’t you? And I’ve been very impressed with Robinson for a while: I thought he created untold havoc in the Super 14 for the Waratahs, not just at scrum time but around the field. A real pocket dynamo. So it didn’t look pretty against the Wallabies, but at the end of the day we won our ball and it didn’t cost us anything. Australia may feel the scrums are an area they want to target us on our away leg. Fantastic — we’ll have done some homework by then too.
Although the Bok pack has gone backwards on some occasions this season, it has also got on the front foot at some especially important scrums, hasn’t it?
An interesting observation to answer your question: because John made the big transition, so many people are looking at that aspect of the game through a microscope. Yet look at the New Zealand-Australia opener in the Tri-Nations – Craig Joubert absolutely hammered (the All Blacks) at the set pieces and penalised Woodcock specifically. But because Woodcock’s an old campaigner, everyone said “ah well, Craig had a bit of a dart at him that day” without conceding that their scrum had indeed come under some pressure. And when we played the All Blacks after that I read reports that our scrum had taken some strain: this in a game where we forced two turnover scrums! Bear in mind that these days you commonly don’t have any turnovers or tighthead heels at all in a match, so we were very (satisfied with that). The dynamics of scrumming are quite complicated: fatigue plays a role, and where you are on the field. It ebbs and flows. Your point is very valid though: there have been some very important defensive Bok scrums and some equally important attacking ones. Then again, there have been vital scrums where we could have done better, too.Tweet