Smit a true warrior
Johannesburg - Even the harshest critics of South Africa Rugby World Cup captain John Smit have to admit he takes criticism like a true warrior.
Dismissed as over the hill at 33 and rated only the fourth best hooker in the country, the man who led the Springboks to 2007 World Cup glory has never turned against his many critics.
"Playing for the Springboks means there is no easy ride, no escape and never a place to hide," he confessed to Business Day.
"Captaining them means the scrutiny is even more intense. The rewards when things are going well are immense - the vitriol is as hectic when you don't play well and the team doesn't win."
There have been plenty of brickbats but few bouquets lately with supporters and the media almost unanimous in crowning Bismarck du Plessis 'king' of the South African hookers.
Smit and Du Plessis have been team-mates at the Durban-based Sharks for several seasons and the latter has never publicly voiced unhappiness at his understudy role.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has also stayed silent on the subject while going against the wishes of Springbok handler Peter de Villiers by playing Du Plessis at hooker and Smit at tight-head prop.
Smit says he and other senior Springboks like lock and vice-captain Victor Matfield decided two years ago that there was sufficient gas in the tanks for another World Cup challenge.
The decision was based on the belief that no world rugby champions have ever had as good a chance of being the first to successfully defend the William Webb Ellis trophy.
"It has to be about the challenge, about doing something incredible, about creating history -- this team is good enough to defend the title and I have a contribution to make.
"If we lose I want to be at the heart of the battle, not sitting in a corporate suite listening to people say that if I had been there it would have been different," says Smit.
While criticism of Smit stems from sluggishness about the field and erratic line-out throwing, Springbok coach Peter de Villiers considers his captain a "world star".
"John is an outstanding player and having him available is a great boost. History has shown that teams who do well at the Rugby World Cup have experienced and outstanding leadership."
Capped for the first time in 2000 and named captain four years later, Smit has also led the green and gold to glory in a Test series against the British nd Irish Lions and a Tri-Nations title.
The only honour to elude the 1.88-metre, 115-kilogram Springbok was a 'grand slam' of tour victories over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
It will hurt him deeply that bloggers celebrated incorrect reports last weekend that he would miss the World Cup through injury as a "blessing".
"I put my trust in John," says De Villiers. Times columnist Archie Henderson insists "Smit is attempting a World Cup too far." The rugby battlefields of New Zealand will decide who is right.