Blemish in Smit’s 'farewell'

2011-08-13 22:39
John Smit (Gallo)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24

Durban – It was billed in the local papers as a sentimental goodbye to hometown Test rugby for John Smit ... instead the Springbok captain ended up being at the centre of what appeared a costly tactical blunder on Saturday.

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South Africa were edged out 14-9 by Australia in the Castle Tri-Nations fixture at Mr Price Kings Park here, consigning them to last-placed finish regardless of whether they beat New Zealand in Port Elizabeth next week.

The threat remains, too, of the Boks experiencing a first-time, winless campaign in the southern hemisphere event, which would hardly be the ideal way to enter their defence of the World Cup, whatever the deceptive influence of putting out a “reserve” side for the first half of the tournament.

And now the already hot debate around Smit’s playing-level suitability to lead the troops into action at RWC 2011 will only crank up a notch, after he was very questionably switched to tighthead prop some 10 minutes into the second half, when three simultaneous alterations were made.

Although substitute hooker Bismarck du Plessis entered the fray to immediate, dynamic effect as his brother Jannie was withdrawn, the veteran skipper moving to the key “right shoulder” slot had the impact only of moving the Wallaby scrum, which had been largely well dealt with at the set piece until then, into overdrive.

In a game that was always a ding-dong affair in blustery conditions and with driving rain arriving in the last quarter, the Boks went on to concede a crucial – and duly goaled -- penalty at scrum-time because they were basically going backwards at a rate of knots.

Out of fairness to Smit, he has been gradually reconditioning himself in recent weeks and months to fit the demands of hooker, so installing him as the supposed strongman at tighthead even for short stints late on just seems more and more foolhardy.

When he left the park with an arm injury four minutes from the end, Jannie du Plessis returned to combat and the Springbok scrum immediately looked in less difficulty again – although the horse had pretty much bolted by then as the Wallabies held on without major fuss for a doggedly-earned triumph.

Coach Peter de Villiers said afterwards that Du Plessis, the starting No 3, had run out of steam when he was pulled off, as had been expected to occur for a few stalwart Boks returning to competitive duty for the first time in several weeks.

He also made the point that for much of his time back at tighthead, Smit lost the benefit of having known second-row powerhouse Bakkies Botha scrumming behind him (the big Bulls bruiser was substituted for Gerhard Mostert with 17 minutes left on the clock).

Of course there is also a case for saying the Bok strategists themselves should have thought of that potential hazard.

So it was an unfortunate way for Smit to end his major-match tenure in this city, although it must also be noted that he is indeed warming increasingly to international activity again as a No 2.

Like several of his fellow seniors coming out of cobwebs on the day, he produced a suitably muscular showing in the first half, when the Boks held the whip hand: the 33-year-old tackled and cleaned out with venom and there are also grounds for suggesting his lineout throwing remains a tad more reliable to that of the younger Du Plessis brother.

I had always feared that the Boks might be trouble in this match, however, if they hadn’t managed to rack up a decent enough lead by the break (it was only 6-0, and then very quickly 6-3 as play resumed  after halftime).

The ever-wily Wallabies made sure they kept some gradually wilting Springboks on the move as the game wore on, and the truth was that before the final whistle the home side were mostly running up dead ends and not looking likely candidates at all to get the required try that could have swung the outcome.

Still, there was some light at the end of the tunnel, for those Bok supporters prepared to keep the faith as the World Cup looms.

Several of the old guard rumbled back into Test mode fairly convincingly for 40 or 50 minutes, among them being the oft-maligned Pierre Spies, plus Botha, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Beast Mtawarira, who made some impressive surges and skeleton-rattling “hits”.

And of some slightly younger favourites returning to the cause, Frans Steyn did some useful things in the last line of defence and Heinrich Brussow gave the service desired of him at the breakdown and occasionally in alert cover defence.

There is something to work with once more, as they say: let’s see if it is enough to knock over an All Blacks side missing a few tough cookies of their own for a change.

That would be a tonic the Boks now cry out for ...

Read more on:    tri-nations  |  john smit


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