South Africa's World Cup winning captain John Smit will tomorrow become the most capped leader in Test rugby history.
By leading the Springboks for the 60th time, tomorrow against New Zealand at the ABSA Stadium Durban, his home ground, Smit will stand at the top of a list of some of the game's greatest skippers. His name will look down on others like Sir Wilson Whineray and Graham Mourie (New Zealand), George Gregan and Andrew Slack (Australia), Martin Johnson and Will Carling (England), Karl Mullen and Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland) plus John Dawes and Bleddyn Williams (Wales). Distinguished company indeed...
Smit was groomed for the job the moment Jake White took over as Springbok coach back in 2004. Together, they steered the South Africans first to Tri-Nations glory in White's first year and then the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Typically, Smit puts winning another Tri-Nations now ahead of any personal feelings of satisfaction.
Smit, 31, who is also the most capped Springbok forward with 85 Tests, moves past the record of 59 shared by Gregan and Carling. He said “It has been a huge honour and privilege to be involved with the 'Boks and I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of it all.
"But we have the task of beating the All Blacks on Saturday and that is what we are focusing on. But it will be nice to break the record on my home ground, at the Absa Stadium.”
John Smit is a widely respected player and leader, as All Blacks coach Graham Henry made clear. “He's a very fine player. He's highly respected by his players and he's a good bloke.
"He's a top man so I can understand why he's (captained) 60 Test matches and I can understand why the Springboks follow him. He's a top person.”
But Smit will know better than anyone to beware plaudits from New Zealand rugby men. After their 28-19 defeat in Bloemfontein last weekend in the first of these two Tri-Nations games, the All Blacks are desperate for a win this time. A clueless performance in Bloemfontein has put immense pressure on certain individuals in this New Zealand side to perform. Scrum half Brendon Leonard pays the ultimate price for his follies, losing his place to Jimmy Cowan. The only other change sees Owen Franks keep his place at tight head prop after replacing the injured Neemia Tialata during last week's game.
Henry said "I said that last week's Test in Bloemfontein would be a massive challenge and this weekend's Test in Durban is no different. But this team has a lot of character and resolve and we are approaching it in a positive frame of mind.”
The All Blacks fell foul of Irish referee Alain Rolland last week and will know that Welshman Nigel Owens will be equally harsh if they continue to transgress. Backs coach Wayne Smith conceded it is up to his players to sharpen their act and cut out the illegalities.
"There is always a wee bit of interpretation but the laws are black and white. You have got the choice as to whether you infringe or not and we infringed, sometimes stupidly, on the weekend. We have got to put that right, it is nothing to do with the referee.”
But the All Blacks have to pick up their act in other areas too. They have lacked the cutting edge in their game out wide which was a distinguishing feature last year. Players like Ma'a Nonu, Mils Muliaina and Joe Rokocoko have struggled to find their best form and could be playing for their places today (SAT), especially Nonu with Luke McAlister now waiting a chance on the bench.
A tally of just eight tries in the first five tests of the year is the All Black's worst return in the professional era, when the average return by this stage has been 26.
It is 15 years since they made a more dour start, and to beat the Springboks today (SAT) they will have to start getting that right. Smith admitted darkly “There's a couple of positions where there is a bit of heat coming on.
"We're trying to play an expansive game, as we've always played, but we have to modify it as well. But there were enough opportunities last week for us to execute and score tries from. We didn't quite manage it so that's our work-on.”
South Africa replace the injured Ruan Pienaar with Morne Steyn, who dragged them to victory over the Lions in the 2nd Test at Pretoria and also last week, when he came on at half time as Pienaar's replacement. Wing Bryan Habana and centre Jean de Villiers will both earn their 50th Test caps for South Africa.
South Africa: F. Steyn; JP Pietersen, J. Fourie, J. De Villiers, B. Habana; M. Steyn, F. Du Preez; T. Mtawarira, B. Du Plessis, J. Smit (Capt.), B. Botha, V. Matfield, H. Brussow, J. Smith, P. Spies.
New Zealand: M, Muliaina; J. Rokocoko, C. Smith, M. Nonu, S. Sivivatu; S. Donald, J. Cowan; A. Woodcock, A. Hore, O. Franks, B. Thorn, I. Ross, J. Kaino, R. McCaw (Capt.), R. So'oialo.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)Reuse content