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Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Smit stirs from his slumber
Cape Town - On another weekend that wasn’t a particularly distinguished one for the under-pressure Springbok “old guard”, at least one of them showed fairly healthy signs of reinvigoration.
And that man was the 2007 World Cup-winning captain, John Smit: the 33-year-old utility front-ranker certainly played his honest part as the Sharks progressively warmed to their task and earned a bonus-point Super Rugby victory over the Hurricanes (40-24) in Durban on Saturday.
The slightly embattled campaigner had a rare start at hooker - coach John Plumtree’s generally more favoured Bismarck du Plessis got a full rest from the match-day 22 - and not only contributed a bullocking personal try but also came to light to a welcome extent in other facets of play.
Unease around the ongoing tenure of Smit as national captain for the Tri-Nations and then 2011 World Cup has been reflected in SARU’s decision to name their captain at a two-day enlarged Bok squad camp on May 1 and 2, rather than let the public assume (or, indeed, officially know) yet that the incumbent remains their favoured option at the tiller.
The whisper remains that Smit will crack the nod anyway, and he chose a good time on Saturday, as the Sharks dotted five tries to two in an ultimately satisfying win, to remind both friend and foe that his ageing frame still has some gas left to burn – at least for the critical next few months.
Of course there is no guarantee that, on the day, Smit would have necessarily eclipsed the absent Du Plessis, who has been consistently industrious and classy in the No 2 shirt this season.
But at least he stuck up his hand and basically announced: "I can still play a bit in that spot too."
Smit mostly did his basics well, showed good bursts of leg-drive, helped significantly in the Sharks’ robust “offensive defence” at breakdowns where staple elements like Beast Mtawarira and Willem Alberts also ticked boxes, and provided invaluable brawn at the set scrums.
It will be fascinating to see, based on evidence from this game, how Plumtree plays his front row cards as the Sharks now turn their attention to a huge, revenge-focussed showdown with the Stormers at Newlands next Saturday.
It is a case of “one meets two” in the South African conference, with the Stormers presently leading by three points (37 to 34) from their coastal rivals after banking their own four bye points on Saturday.
Schalk Burger's side do still enjoy a game in hand, but the Sharks could replace the leaders at the top of the table if they win, and will be fully aware that the Stormers must yet embark on their four-match overseas tour.
Sadly for defending champions the Bulls, they are now almost certainly also-rans this year, after crashing to a sickening third successive defeat and fifth in total in their final tour match against the Force in Perth, after leading at halftime.
"We have to win everything back home if we are to stand any chance (of staying in the race)," captain Victor Matfield admitted after the 26-21 setback.
The likeliest scenario now is that the Bulls will be potentially destructive "nuisance value" against the two superior South African franchises - they must still play the Sharks twice and Stormers once more at Newlands.
Whether they are definite also-rans by then or not, the Bulls are hardly going to play willing easy-beats in those three derbies, in a time-honoured SA tradition.
Of ongoing concern from a national perspective was that several of the Pretoria-based team’s senior Springbok troops, unlike Smit on a different battlefield, continued to look glaring yards off the pace against the limited Force.
Bakkies Botha was again substituted notably early (the 49th minute) after hardly setting the world alight with his work-rate or fire, Matfield’s aura as a lineout dominator suffered strange further erosion, and Pierre Spies produced another palpably incomplete showing at No 8, including defensive and handling lapses.
It is true that Botha and Spies, in particular, did provide some largely unsung leg-power in a few promising mauling moves by the Bulls, but they fell well short overall of reminding those watching that they are meant to be seasoned, feared internationals.
And then there is Fourie du Preez - the once-unmatched Bok scrumhalf always does some good things, and there is still nothing wrong with the range on his pass, but his recent error-prone streak goes on and there were times when he was just not at his post quite as quickly as the cause demanded.
Thank heavens, then, for the small mercy provided by old soldier Smit this weekend ...Next round of Super Rugby matches (home teams first):
Friday: Highlanders v Blues, Cheetahs v Brumbies. Saturday: Hurricanes v Reds, Waratahs v Rebels, Force v Crusaders, Bulls v Chiefs, Stormers v Sharks.