Bok duo aim to retire on a high
Johannesburg - John Smit and Victor Matfield have done more than play international rugby together. They've grown up together.
They've watched each other get married and have children. On the pitch, they've shared in glorious highs and trying lows together. After the World Cup in New Zealand they plan to retire together - as world champions.
South Africa's most capped players and two of the great Springboks in the country's rich rugby history, Smit and Matfield have been ever-present for a decade, through Rugby World Cup triumph, Tri-Nations titles and a series win over the British and Irish Lions.
Their national duties have also spanned coaches coming and going, controversial military-style training camps and World Cup and Tri-Nations failures.
The pair of 100-Test veterans hope to lead South Africa to successive titles, a feat never achieved at rugby's showpiece, in their final act as Springboks.
But the questions remain: Is it one step too far for Smit and Matfield? Have they held on too long? And will South Africa's attempt to defend the title be distracted by their farewell?
Skipper Smit and vice-captain Matfield will provide much of the inspiration for South Africa's 2011 squad, even more so than the victorious campaign in France in 2007. But it promises to be a big test of leadership and individual ability for the aging pair after the Boks team had two tough seasons in the run-in to the World Cup.
Smit and Matfield forged their relationship as young squad members at the 2003 tournament in Australia, when South Africa's buildup under former coach Rudolf Straeuli was undermined by the controversial pre-tournament boot camp, 'Kamp Staaldraad.'
Since then, they've formed the best thrower-jumper lineout combination in the world, become the most capped Boks ever in their positions and created a hugely experienced partnership that has won a World Cup and two Tri-Nations. South Africa counts on them lead it to an unprecedented third world title.
"Victor and I, it's crazy. We've played a huge amount of tests together." Smit said. "We've seen each other get married, have kids. We've been through Staaldraads together, we've won World Cups and Tri-Nations, we've lost Tri-Nations. We've had our moments up and down and we've always had each other.
"For me, it's just a special relationship. A lot of people always take Victor for granted. He's a phenomenal player and a great leader. He's been a pillar of strength for me. I've relied on him heavily throughout my time as captain and he's stepped up and provided."
Matfield said: "Myself and John are big mates. We've been playing together for quite some time now. It's about knowing each other's body language, knowing what's coming and that always helps. It's fantastic what the two of us have."
In the past two years, however, their experience has been sorely tested.
There have been just two wins in 10 matches against southern hemisphere rivals New Zealand and Australia as the Springboks slipped to No. 3 in the rankings.
The 33-year-old Smit, especially, has come under fire for his place in the team and Matfield, 34, while still world-class, isn't as dominant as he once was in the middle of the lineout. But current coach Peter de Villiers retains faith in his two leaders to inspire the team again.
"I trust both of them completely," De Villiers said. "I know their abilities and how they can read the game. I think we are in a better position than we were a few years back."
And praise for Smit and Matfield is universal in rugby.
"They've been great players, haven't they?" New Zealand coach Graham Henry said during this year's Tri-Nations. "They've both played over 100 test matches for South Africa and John has probably been one of the greatest captains that's captained in the game of rugby. He's won a World Cup. He's a special man and a special captain.
"Victor has been and may be still the greatest lineout forward in the game. They're special players and we have a lot of respect for them."
With the experience of a combined 213 Tests, the pair have said reacting to adversity and recovering when things go wrong will be key at the World Cup.
"I think that's what makes a good team," Smit said. "A team that can prepare itself well for a curve ball, but also react well to a curve ball. And this team has seen a few curve balls in its time. We've overcome a lot of them and some we haven't - it's those lessons where you haven't that you have to hold on to."
Matfield also stressed the World Cup campaign would not just be about them.
"Not everyone's career is ending. The others will keep going, so the Springboks are still in good hands after the World Cup," Matfield said. "Of course, for the few of us that are going out there on a trip like this for one last time, we want to go out there and win. But I think everyone, even those who will continue afterward, they want to win the World Cup because it's so special."
* Can the Springboks win the World Cup? Click HERE for the latest tournament odds on BET.CO.ZA