It’s time Smit leads from blazer
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The crystal-clear has just become even more abundant than that … awkward and regrettable though it is, John Smit simply cannot lead the Springboks from the front line in key remaining matches at this World Cup.
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Perhaps he could still do the start-out honours against Fiji, next up. Certainly the same could apply to the Namibia date after that.
But from the potential banana-peel fixture to close their Pool D account against Samoa and presumably onward into the knockout stage, Bismarck du Plessis now has to be the top hooker in the Bok pecking order, for crying out loud.
I am not even sure whether, from that point in the tournament, the veteran leader deserves to command a place among the reserves - although Smit offers at least some measure of front-row versatility, can his 33-year-old legs really offer much in the way of essential “impact” late on?
No, this distinguished gentleman of the game must quickly be remodelled - against all but any remaining RWC easy-beats - into a motivator and pillar of wisdom and advice from the sanctuary of a team blazer, which still fits him snugly and handsomely.
Let’s get this straight, John Smit didn’t play glaringly wretchedly against Wales at Wellington on Sunday. Or at least no worse than several other of the much-discussed senior citizens in the Springbok stable.
But we’ve also waited very patiently for a genuinely eight- or nine-out-of-10 personal performance from him in 2011 that just hasn’t come. Not by a long shot.
Bluntly, he doesn’t have the mobility and dynamism to compete with the modern trailblazers in his slot: he’s become an ordinary presence stuck somewhere in the peloton.
The less forgiving might even spit out this ignominious label: “liability”.
But the facts from the Cake Tin are pretty straightforward: with Smit and one or two other puffing presences still on the park as the match neared the three-quarter mark, South Africa were trailing 16-10 on the scoreboard with alarm bells ringing deafeningly around them.
Smit and others are supposed to bring the Boks “grunt” … yet the snarl was instead coming overwhelmingly from the inspired men in scarlet.
It was time for emergency measures and Peter de Villiers, to his credit, answered the need: in quick succession, on came Du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Francois Hougaard for a labouring Smit, Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana.
Commentator and former Bok captain Bob Skinstad was quickly able to trumpet (and there hadn’t hitherto been much cause for that, from the perspective of the defending champions) the “energy” injected by the newcomers, who played pivotal roles in a turnaround that had seemed unlikely.
In some 23 telling minutes, Smit’s direct replacement busied - or should that read Bizzied? - himself to a luminary degree, his face seemingly always at the forefront of things as the twist in this tale gradually took fruitful shape.
And there was Du Plessis after the siren, too, pilfering a ball back for the green and gold as the disbelieving, trailing Welsh gamely tried to launch one final onslaught to snatch back a victory that had earlier appeared to be so legitimately theirs to the vast majority of neutrals, I’m sure.
Ever the diplomat and decent man, Smit felt compelled afterwards to laud “Bizzie’s turnovers at crucial times”.
If it’s any consolation for the captain, he isn’t the only ageing Bok soldier requiring rigorous post-match scrutiny - someone like scrumhalf string-puller Fourie du Preez perplexingly continues to mix the near-sublime with the rank shaky this year - and if there’s a school of thought that the Boks are basking in delusional, past glory, this match only watered that particular plant.
There’s a further complicating aspect, while on that theme: if the Boks are going to stick stubbornly to their corroding template, are they also going to have to do so, at least for a while, without their maximum personnel geared for it?
Certainly the sight of World Cup-jinxed Jean de Villiers and lineout kingpin Victor Matfield leaving the field prematurely via injury will only add to some confusion and unease in coming days.
There were some silver linings.
First the obvious one: despite this bumbling, low-oomph show, the Boks have taken a massive step in pool terms, considering that Wales are supposedly their stiffest obstacle.
Been there, done that … somehow.
And then how about the “gees” shown by the likes of Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brüssow, considering that these loose forwards spent so much time in unexpected scrambling, retreating mode?
That fellow Burger is a machine: only he could produce a high-industry comeback like that after so many weeks on the sidelines, couldn’t he?
Onward, thus, march the Springboks, albeit on near-embarrassed tiptoes just at the moment.
Did we “moer hulle”, as the big-mouthed Minister of Sport had so publicly desired?
I hardly think so.