Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - All Black coach Graham Henry views the injury enforced withdrawal of Juan Smith as a massive blow to the Springbok chances of winning the Rugby World Cup.
The big flanker was finally forced to give up his dream of being part of a second successive winning World Cup effort when he announced on Wednesday evening that he would not be available to play for the Cheetahs in a Currie Cup match this weekend.
Springbok coach Peter de Villiers wanted to see Smith play before the World Cup squad announcement next Tuesday, and Smith has reluctantly accepted that coming back from an Achilles operation so quickly was always going to be a huge ask.
The Smith withdrawal was confirmed by the Springbok management in Port Elizabeth on Thursday, and although De Villiers would have been half expecting it, he expressed his disappointment.
“Juan has been in a race against time to be fit and we were keen to give him every opportunity to prove that he could be available,” said De Villiers.
“He is understandably very disappointed, as are we, but he has made the right decision. A fully fit Juan Smith would have been an enormous asset to our World Cup campaign. This is a major disappointment to us.
“But it was obvious that he was still some way from full fitness, and his decision confirms the advice of our medical team. Out of respect for a great Springbok, we wanted to leave the door open until the last moment for him.”
The 69-Test match veteran injured his Achilles playing for the Cheetahs in a Super Rugby match in February.
De Villiers’ All Black adversary, Henry, when told that Smith was out, made no attempt to play down the possible impact on the Bok World Cup chances.
“It will make a big impact on their campaign because he is a world class player and to lose such an important world class player is always a big blow,” said Henry.
“He is a player the All Blacks have massive respect for. He is also a top bloke. Believe it or not the All Blacks and Springboks get on very well with each other, obviously they just aren’t that lovey dovey when on the field. And Juan Smith is one of the players who is responsible for that enormous respect the All Blacks have for the Springboks. He will be a big loss.”
Smith told reporters that he realised he just had to be honest with himself that he was still a long way from where he needed to be in his rehabilitation to stand a realistic chance of performing at his best at the World Cup.
“I've worked very hard to get back on the training field but I am still some way from full fitness and have been training with quite a lot of pain,” said the loose-forward.
“I had been trying to tell myself that I would come right but I realised that just wasn’t going to happen. This is a big blow to me. The Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of every player’s career. I was looking forward to our attempt to become the first team to defend the World Cup title.”
Smith is the first top first choice player to be officially ruled out of the World Cup, although Andries Bekker was ruled out of the tournament last month.
Schalk Burger won’t play before the World Cup but De Villiers is confident he will be over his hand injury in time for the first game against Wales on 11 September.