Cape Town - The Springboks have shed one 2007 World Cup-winning hero with the controversial departure of Frans Steyn this week ... but they may fairly shortly regain another.
Sport24 can reveal that Bok coach Heyneke Meyer sat up and took notice, with much of the rest of the rugby world, over Juan Smith’s towering performance for Toulon in the recent Heineken Cup final and would like him back in his squad mix.
The vastly respected former Cheetahs loose forward favourite is on a serious conditioning and refreshment mission to give himself the best possible chance of inclusion in Meyer’s plans for the Castle Rugby Championship, having liaised closely with him over his current state of fitness.
He was an intended contender for the Bok mastermind’s present, June Test window campaign, but admitted that he was not in a suitable state of readiness for any fairytale return to international duty yet – the strong but athletic blindside flank last played for South Africa (69th cap) in the 21-11 victory over England at Twickenham in November 2010.
He tore his Achilles tendon in February 2011 and after at least four operations and a gap of some two and a half years it seemed his career had ended.
But Smith is made of stern stuff and a new surgical technique appears to have done the trick on the troublesome tendon – it is not the reason the 32-year-old is not in optimal shape right now, as other niggles are responsible.
Meyer provided some background in a recent chat with this writer over the player’s situation: “Yes, I have certainly been looking at him; he’s been playing great rugby.
“Juan’s the classic case of a guy who needs more than just the couple of weeks of rest people so often speak about as a (recharge device). Those small breaks can help to freshen the mind a bit, but players also need longer periods at times of six to eight weeks where they can condition.
“If you are always carrying injuries you can’t really gym; your body is sore and you simply play the next game, so you never get better.
“Athletes at the Olympics are unbelievably prepared, and at their best then, because they have an unbelievable off-peak system until the actual (competition).
“What we don’t get often enough for rugby players is that six to eight weeks I spoke of, where you can do real conditioning and get stronger ... because if you are stronger, you don’t get injuries as your muscles are better prepared to take the hits.
“That’s where the All Blacks get it right, taking players out of competition for (significant) periods and then they come back mentally refreshed, but also stronger and quicker.
“I say all this is as Juan hadn’t played for a very lengthy time due to his Achilles injury, and then he came back and played for Toulon.
“He is such a professional: after all his (Achilles-related) issues he admitted he’s been playing through other injuries – he’s been struggling with a shoulder problem -- and presently doesn’t feel he could give his best for us.
“What he wanted was to take six to eight weeks off, train really hard, and be in the best possible shape so he can be in peak form for possible (Bok) selection.”
If all goes well in that regard, the veteran flanker – remember that in rugby “mileage” terms he is more like someone in his late twenties, given his marathon absence from the game – should be ready for squad consideration when the Boks open their Championship challenge against Argentina at Loftus on August 16.
There will be a school of thought that another ageing star would not necessarily be beneficial to the Boks’ 2015 RWC quest, but plenty of others who subscribe to the view that class is permanent and Smith epitomises that if his body is holding up properly.
Meyer said he respected Smith’s honesty: “He decided to bite the bullet for Toulon’s two finals (Heineken Cup and French Top 14 domestic showpiece) and then properly rehab his injury to make it stronger.
“I definitely looked at him; in the end he wasn’t available for this (June window) series, but he will definitely be available going forward.
“Juan is certainly in contention ... I always like a big blindside flanker who can carry the ball in the way someone like Willem Alberts plays, and also Duane at No 8; they’re so physical so I am always looking at the next options – this is only the start of our Bok season and there are already lots of injuries.”
It might take a major effort, of course, for Smith to dislodge Alberts, the so-called “Bone Collector” due to his rattling hits, from a Bok starting XV at No 7.
But in Toulon’s victorious Heineken Cup final, the unassuming, Bloemfontein-born competitor made several monster tackles of his own and potentially has an advantage over Alberts for mobility and great linking skills in open play.
He is also arguably still among the planet’s foremost lineout jumpers.
Smith playing for the Boks again may seem a long shot to some ... but then even getting back on the field seemed exactly that until a few months ago for the gritty character.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing