In the week leading up to his 50th Test cap a few years ago, John Smit wrote former Springbok coach Jake White a thank-you letter.
“He said I always gave the players a letter when they reached milestones, so he thought he’d write me one because he never thought he’d make it that far,” remembered White this week.
Simnikiwe Xabanisa writes in the Sunday Times that the Springbok captain is now a hundredth team announcement away from becoming only the second Bok – the first forward – to amass a ton of Tests in Saturday’s Tri-Nations game against New Zealand.
White was a touch incredulous when he said the milestone, and the numerous records set en route to it, “couldn’t happen to a nicer and more deserving guy”. This is probably because the World Cup-winning coach advised the hooker to call it a day after leading the Boks to that victory in 2007.
But he should have known better, because Smit doesn’t do comfort zones very well, as his acceptance of the most thankless captaincy job doing the rounds in rugby six years ago has shown.
In that time, the 32-year-old has won the Currie Cup, the British & Irish Lions series, two Tri-Nations, and the World Cup as captain.
Along the way, he has become the most capped Springbok hooker, the most capped Bok forward, and the most experienced international captain in history.
Not bad for a guy who spent practically his entire career being told there were better players than him out there despite more than 200 first-class outings suggesting otherwise.
Yet on the eve of the Boks’ massive team man’s greatest individual achievement, there are those begrudging him his moment by insisting his less-than-brilliant form currently means the selection would be sentimental.
Besides that not necessarily being true, it would also be missing the point.
This cap is South African rugby’s thank you to its greatest servant.
When Smit took over the Bok captaincy, against Ireland in Bloem in 2004, South African rugby was a Kamp Staaldraad joke.
During his “ambassadorship” Smit has coaxed the Springboks to a position where their ability to play has instilled fear on the field again, not to mention mended fences with the rest of the rugby world after a period in which they were branded thugs.
It’s something White and Smit’s fellow Springbok legends Os du Randt, Percy Montgomery, who beat Smit to 100 caps, and Victor Matfield understand too well.
In recounting how his relationship with Smit developed this week, Du Randt could have been speaking for the average South African: “I first met him in 2004 when I started playing with him. At first I thought he wasn’t that special but after I got to know him I’ve changed my mind.
“He has become a special player and person in my book. I’m older than him but in the team I considered him a mentor because he was one of those guys you could talk to about any of your problems and you would know he wouldn’t tell anyone else.”
While Smit may have slow-poisoned his way to the public’s affection, White said having seen him play for the first time in Grade 10, he knew it was only a matter before he would play for the Springboks.
Matfield was similarly impressed by a “red-headed loosehead who could carry the ball well” at a rugby week at Pretoria Boys High.
For all that inexplicable ability to divide opinions (after all, Montgomery describes him as Barney, the friendly Dinosaur), Smit did not build his reputation on impressions, he did it by leading men.
Five years ago he said: “I like to be a guy who influences things rather than one who is influenced.”
And isn’t he just.
Matfield openly admitted that he had borrowed something of Smit’s leadership style.
“When he became captain he empowered guys like Os, myself, Percy, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers and so on,” said Matfield. “It’s one thing to empower those around you, but can you trust them to do what they’re supposed to do?
“He did, and that’s something I took to the Bulls with me because when I started out Joost van der Westhuizen was the captain and it was his way or the highway.”
White said Smit’s calling card as a captain was an ability to say the right thing at the right time.
“He had a go at me at the one practice at the World Cup because I kept making them do the same drill and we wiped out CJ van der Linde doing it,” said White. “He said: ‘Why are you trying to coach us in two weeks what you haven’t in four years?’”
Du Randt remembered another incident at a Test match in which the Boks weren’t looking particularly flash: “He’s not a guy who shouts on the field but this time he called us behind the posts and kakked on us.
“But then the great thing was that he also told us what to do next. It’s easy to shout, but can you give the guys a plan for the rest of the game?”
Matfield said that what made captaining against Smit difficult was the fact that “it is imposing to stand before all that achievement at the coin toss before a game, you want to show that you can do the same”.
Despite the many doubts on his ability as a player, few useless front-rowers have scrummed down in all three of the front-row positions at international level.
As Matfield said: “As a lock you get all the accolades at the lineout, but for six years I’ve had him throwing it spot-on.”
Montgomery railed against the criticism aimed at Smit at the moment: “Personally I think it’s all bullshit, but it’s all part of the game. Being criticised brings out a person’s true character.”
In that case, Smit should be in his element going into his umpteenth Test – out of his comfort zone.Tweet