Rob Houwing

Will Smit do honorable thing?

2010-12-01 08:34
Rob Houwing
Rob Houwing

Amidst the vigorous debate surrounding head coach Peter de Villiers and his ticket – or not – to the World Cup, people seem to have rather tiptoed around another complex issue: is it really so clear-cut that John Smit will reassume the team leadership reins from stand-in Victor Matfield?

From the point of view of pure captaincy credentials, it is probably true to say that Smit continues to eclipse Matfield, who has been a loyal disciple of his at national level for several years yet led the weakened Bok squad with some aplomb on the end-of-year mission.

If the acting skipper did one thing beyond all dispute in Britain and Ireland recently, it was confirm his ongoing reputation as the premier lineout forward on the planet, while his general play – not to mention courage at Twickenham after damaging a rib -- fell mostly into the lead-by-example category as well.

Yes, powered by especially immense personal performances against Ireland and England, the Blue Bulls captain, 33, totally put to bed any murmurs that he might be a little too long in the tooth for a crack at World Cup retention in 2011.

And the possibility that he, rather than Smit, may lead the troops at the New Zealand showpiece stays a matter very much on the table, by my reckoning.

It is for the simple reason that the supposed first-choice captain has quite a battle on his hands – and he will know it, too -- to convince the Bok brains trust, critics and fans alike that he will be worth his place in the starting line-up.

Um, and which place will that be, into the delicate bargain?

Here’s a refresher on the Smit state of affairs: the unconvincing tight-head prop experiment firmly out of the way, he led the Boks back at his more familiar hooker’s berth during their poor Tri-Nations 2010 campaign.

But the beefy 32-year-old also stood accused at times of lacking the necessary dynamism and mobility at No 2 (although his bacon was arguably saved by the absence at the time of his key challenger and Sharks team-mate Bismarck du Plessis, slowly feeling his way along the return road from injury via the Currie Cup).

That, of course, is no longer the case: for “Bizzie” is very much back ... he may well have produced the most inspired rugby of his career thus far on the Grand Slam tour, culminating in being named Sky television’s man-of-the-match against England.

Not only did he perform his staple chores with aplomb (except at rain-drenched Murrayfield where he lost the throw-in plot over a 20-minute period) but he was also a forceful factor at the breakdown – even showing specialist fetcher Deon Stegmann a thing or two on occasion in turnover-winning terms.

Du Plessis may just be the world’s best hooker right now: how could be possibly, under current circumstances, be asked to play second fiddle to Smit there?
With Bismarck’s brother Jannie having pleasingly emerged as a tight-head “rock” for the Boks this year -- after some two or three years in which the jury was largely out over him -- a return to that slot for Smit is massively unlikely.

So maybe loose-head prop is a better option. By its very definition, the spot allows for a slightly “looser” approach and there are whispers that Smit will get game-time there for the Sharks in the Super 15 – he has shown up well at times on that side of the front row.

But massively complicating that prospect, too, is the fact that No 1 is a department where Bok rugby is already better stocked than most: Messrs Beast Mtawarira, also a leading light in the northern hemisphere during November, and Gurthro Steenkamp (the not trifling matter of SA Rugby’s player of the year!) take care of that happy state of affairs.

What, then, is on Smit’s side as he casts a perhaps slightly nervous look to his Bok role in 2011? As said before, his leadership itself seems a little lopsidedly his strongest suit at present.

He edges Matfield, I suspect, in all of strategic nous, motivational gifts and also the hardly unimportant area of public relations and diplomacy, although that is not to say the Bulls player is actually weak in these respects.

Might Smit, for instance, have “worked” Stu Dickinson a little more cleverly than Matfield did, when the Bok lock slightly lost his rag with the official at Murrayfield and the South Africans kept on conceding slews of penalties?

In addition, there are thought to be several senior Springboks who still fancy most going to war with and for John Smit.

But in pure playing terms, the dice looks more loaded against Smit now than it did before the Grand Slam tour started.

Can those ageing legs somehow drag him to unexpected new personal heights as a hooker or possibly, once more, prop?

Personally, I hope he at least makes a brave fist of the challenge; I wouldn’t be so stupid as to write the guy off. The qualities he brings to the party and proven track record at the tiller must not summarily be pooh-poohed.

Smit is a proud, determined and admirable man. But I would not discount the possibility, some time in the next few weeks or months, that the distinguished servant makes an “announcement” after deep contemplation of his precarious position.

Read into that what you will ...

Rob is Sport24's chief writer

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