It is the regular-guy manner that strikes you about John Smit. He smiles a lot, speaks with a nonchalance that suggests he doesn’t have much of importance to say and yet has captained his country more often than anybody, and he has been South Africa’s most successful skipper. Perhaps no player has done as much to manage the colours in the rainbow nation’s team.
There is more to him than meets your eye. Many stories testify to this, one that does so emphatically. Before last year’s Tri-Nations match against Australia at Ellis Park, when Smit was injured and the team had lost four of its previous five games, he was asked by coach Peter de Villiers to speak to the players before they departed the team hotel for the stadium.
As he wasn’t playing, it was a tough ask. Smit thought about what had gone wrong and judged that Luke Watson’s inclusion in the squad had been hugely divisive. The son of “Cheeky” Watson, the anti-apartheid activist who forsook the chance of turning out for the Springboks to play his rugby with black players in the townships, Luke Watson had been forced on the previous coach, Jake White, by South African Rugby Union officials and now in 2008, many Springbok players were unhappy about his presence in the squad.
Smit felt that although Watson wanted to play for the Boks, he didn’t enjoy the environment. A bad situation was made worse by Watson rubbing his teammates the wrong way. Behind his back they called him “the cancer”, as they believed he poisoned the atmosphere. For that do-or-die match against the Wallabies, he was a replacement and one of the 22 in the room when Smit began to speak.
“There are 21 guys here who will bleed for each other,” he said, “and you have to understand that you can’t let one guy disrupt everything we’ve worked for as a team. We are bigger than this one guy, and he shouldn’t be allowed to affect how we feel about each other.” As he spoke, Smit became more emotional. “Passion,” he said, “is not enough. You can talk about passion until the cows come home. Do you want to see passion?”
He then picked a glass from a nearby table and fired it against a wall. Fragments exploded in every direction, showering the players. “That is passion,” he said, “and it’s gone already. It’s over in a moment.” Individual shows of passion from Watson or any other player, he was telling the group, were nothing compared to the collective will of a united team.
A week before, the Springboks had lost 27-15 to the Wallabies in Durban. At Ellis Park they won 53-8.
Smit isn’t always as intense as he was then; mostly his take on the world comes dressed more casually. Remarkably, the series against the Lions last summer didn’t do much for him. It was good to win, he says half-heartedly, but the memories are few and not fond. Perhaps, he jokes, it was his fault for having visions of grandeur about what it would be like. But, first, he wants to share his favourite Lions moment.
“I was 18 and barely out of school when the 1997 Lions came to South Africa and in my second ever game for the Natal Sharks, I came on as a replacement against the Lions. It was the most amazing experience of my rugby life at the time. When the match ended, Dai Young came to our changing room and said he would like to swap shirts with me. I thought, ‘Oh s***!’
“This was the first time I was allowed to keep a Natal shirt and this was a special one because it had the British and Irish Lions logo on it. I couldn’t give away my first Natal jersey, even though I would have loved a Lions jersey. ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way,’ I said to Dai, ‘but I can’t give away my Natal shirt, I might never play for this team again.’ He didn’t know what to say and just walked away. I felt bad about it.
“Half an hour later, I’d showered and our coach, Ian McIntosh, said, ‘There’s someone at the door for you’. Jason Leonard was standing there. ‘I want you to have this and good luck with your career.’ It was his Lions jersey from the match. I was struck out, just couldn’t speak. I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing’. Leonard epitomised what rugby was about. So I had visions of grandeur about the 2009 Lions.”
Visions that turned into delusions of grandeur: “The biggest disappointment for me,” Smit said in his just published autobiography, Captain in the Cauldron, “was that there was no socialising between the teams, due to a fair amount of bad blood.” Now, sitting in a hotel overlooking the Place du Capitole in Toulouse, he tells of a relationship between the teams that was never better than hostile.
“I had been getting our management and players to invite all our oppositions to join us for a beer in the changing room area immediately after the match. We do our media stuff, shower and then share a beer with the guys we’ve played against. On the Wednesday before the first Test in Durban, we threw the invitation out to the Lions. They said, ‘Thanks, but no’. They didn’t want to do that. It was quite disappointing and it didn’t help how the games were played.
“There was an unnecessary amount of niggle, chirping, pulling and pushing, and it overtook what should have been an amazing contest between the Lions and Springboks.”
Reading this, many Lions fans will say: “Hold on, six seconds into the second Test, it was your guy sticking his fingers into our guy’s eyes?”
“That didn’t help anything. It would be easy for me as a teammate to explain away what Schalk [Burger] did, but I can’t. No matter how aggressively you’re trying to clean a ruck, if you feel your hand going into someone’s face, you must pull it away. I can only imagine that on the day of his 50th cap, in a series decider against the Lions, those things actually didn’t help Schalk at all.
“But the niggle didn’t start at that point and I’m not saying we were innocent or they were guilty. I am just saying I wanted so much more out of the experience. I’m glad we won, but that’s all we’ve taken from that series.”
Smit believes it was a senior Irish player who was against the post-match beers and points out that the Aussies, the All Blacks and all of the Sharks’ Super 14 rivals accepted invitations for the post-game get-togethers. “We played six games in the TriNations, we tried to beat the living daylights out of each other on the pitch but there wasn’t the constant chirping and niggle. And not one incident. Afterwards we had beers together and it created the spirit that I’d been initiated in through Jason Leonard.”
Had they got to know him, the 2009 Lions would have enjoyed Smit’s company because he is an affable man. He has also been a remarkably influential captain. “In our team,” White once said, “you have Afrikaners, Englishmen, coloured, blacks, parochial foes from the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions. It is a recipe for war. Yet in all the years of John’s captaincy, there has never been an unhappy customer, not one voice of rebellion against his leadership. He is the glue that holds the Springboks together.”
Smit says he has been fortunate. “I was brought up by parents who gave me the opportunity to be open-minded, something they weren’t allowed to be in their youth. I’m proud Jake said that because if you ask me what I would like my legacy to be, it is recognition that within the Springbok family we can come from very different traditions and still be as one.
“You don’t have to love South Africa to be fascinated by it. As a South African, you have to embrace things you would never have imagined embracing. The guy beside you in the changing room has been brought up in a very different environment, with a very different set of values, and if you think he is wrong, all you will do is argue. You accept there are a number of ways to live. I ask guys in our team to teach me their language, so we can share our differences without having to succumb to each other.”
When Smit became the second South African to lift the Webb Ellis Cup two years ago, it was presumed his term as captain had run its course. He had been so closely aligned with White that it seemed unlikely he could be as effective with the new coach. Smit himself saw it that way and took himself off to France. De Villiers asked him to return and since then, they have forged an excellent relationship.
“Everywhere I go the question is, ‘Tell me the real story about the coach’. Everyone wants me to tell them that he’s an absolute idiot. He’s not. He has this amazing way of working with the people inside our group, makes everyone feel part of it, and, most of all, he has empowered the players to take the team forward.”
Notwithstanding Friday evening’s loss to France, South Africa have been the best side in the world this year. But the success has come at a price, with a number of the players ending the season chronically tired. Professor Tim Noakes, head of sports science at the University of Cape Town and an advisor to the Springboks, said that Smit, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez should have been rested for this end-of-season tour.
Smit appreciated the concern, but disagreed. “We’ve picked our best available team for every Test but one this season, and when you’ve led for the entire year, you want to finish in the No 1 position.
“But I agree that if we’re to get to the 2011 World Cup in good shape, we can’t play too much over the next two years. We’ve agreed a schedule which makes provision for a lot of rest for the players. The World Cup is very important but, ultimately, it’s not the goal. The goal is to be successful and if you’re the Springboks, that means winning most of your games. And anyway, if you lose games you can’t go to the World Cup expecting to win.”
This article was written by David Walsh for www.timesonline.co.ukTweet