Captain Smit yearns for glory then pastures new

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The Independent Online

England's captain, Phil Vickery, has the moniker Raging Bull. South Africa's captain, John Smit – it would have been so English had he had an "h" at the end of his name – is also a front- row forward of considerable stature.

On Saturday night at the Stade de France, they might have gone head to head but for the fact that Smit, who first made his name as a prop, switched to the centre of the front row and to great effect.

As a hooker, Smit, six feet two inches tall, weighs in at 250lb, which, especially in the modern game, makes him a major asset in a pack of forwards that likes to think it would not come out second best to anybody in the world.

Smit is not a Bull – the Blue Bulls rejected him – but a Natal Shark and, whatever happens in the final against England, rugby in South Africa will undergo, as it periodically does, significant changes.

Jake White, the coach, has reached the end of the road and his chosen leader is also leaving the Republic. Smit is joining the French club, Clermont-Ferrand, on a two-year contract after the tournament, and he intends to do so as a member of a very elite club, the small band of World Cup-winning captains.

At 29, this is Smit's last chance to reach the pinnacle and he has the opportunity to emulate the achievement of Francois Pienaar, who took possession of the Webb Ellis Cup in Johannesburg in 1995. It was an incredibly emotional return to the centre stage for the Springboks, who did not compete in the World Cups in 1987 and 1991 because of apartheid sanctions.

In 1995, the Rainbow Nation not only had Pienaar as captain, but Nelson Mandela supporting the country while wearing a replica – somewhat smaller – of the captain's No 6 jersey. How could they lose?

It went down to the wire 12 years ago, a drop goal by Joel Stransky in extra time proving the decisive score against the All Blacks. What goes around comes around.

In 1999, South Africa were knocked out to a drop goal in the semi-finals by Australia and, as for the 2003 tournament, the least said the better. Pre-World Cup, the Springboks were engaged in a notoriously brutal training camp and were decisively beaten by New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Exit the coach, Rudi Straeuli, and enter White and a new regime. And the first name on his team sheet was that of Smit.

He made his debut for South Africa against Canada in East London seven years ago, but initially struggled to keep his place. When White took over in 2004, he astutely made Smit captain and the fortunes of the Springboks improved dramatically.

Smit led South Africa to the Tri-Nations title in the first year of his captaincy. But when there was a somewhat less impressive autumn tour of Europe last year, White's position came under serious threat. The Blue Bulls of Pretoria passed a vote of no confidence, but Smit defended his coach to the hilt, arguing that to dismiss him 12 months before the World Cup would not be clever.

The two men, then, are pretty close. Smit was an outstanding schoolboy prop forward in the English-speaking high school in Pretoria and made his senior debut in professional rugby at the tender age of 18. When White was the assistant coach of the South African under-21 side, Smit was a tight-head prop; White converted him into a hooker and subsequently, as the careers of the two men prospered, they developed a relationship built on loyalty and trust.

Almost nothing about rugby in South Africa is straightforward or uncomplicated. The appointment of Smit as captain of the Springboks was treated with suspicion and even hostility in many parts of the country. But the partnership has endured, survived and has been successful.

Perhaps Smit's greatest achievement has been to pull the Springboks together: the English speakers, the Afrikaaners, the different races, and that, as any of his predecessors would have told him, is no easy task.

"Representing the Springboks since my debut in 2000 and also playing for my beloved Sharks was a real dream come true for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it," Smit said. "However, the time has come to make a change and move on in my professional career. I now look forward to returning to South Africa with some new experiences – he is moving to France with his wife, Maxine, and baby daughter, Anna.

"I am not retiring from international rugby and it will be an honour for me to play in any future match for my country."

Even so, the suspicion is that, come Saturday night, Smit, who wins his 47th cap, a record for his country, will probably follow White down the yellow brick road.

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