There was a smidgen of good news for the British and Irish Lions as the majority of the squad continued their hard yakka on the training field while a small handful of those not required for this weekend's tour opener against an invitation side in Rustenburg – Brian O'Driscoll, Gethin Jenkins, Ugo Monye and Nathan Hines among them – headed off to an impoverished township to inaugurate a new rugby pitch at Masibambane College, a seat of learning set up at the request of the great anti-apartheid campaigner Walter Sisulu, no less.
The glad tidings concerned John Smit, who led South Africa to the world title in 2007 while confirming himself as one of the finest hookers in Springbok history. Smit pretty much confirmed that in the forthcoming Test series, someone else will be doing the hooking while he continues in his old-new position of tight-head prop, the role he performed in age-group rugby. It is not a policy that convinces everyone in these parts – perhaps not even Smit, calmness personified as a general rule but a trifle prickly on the subject yesterday. When the 31-year-old forward from Limpopo province was asked whether it might not be a little late to start chopping and changing, he replied: "It would be if I thought my career was nearly finished." Which he doesn't, apparently.
Smit will play at prop when a Springbok side shorn of their Bulls, who play in the Super 14 final on Saturday, take on a Namibian XV in Windhoek tomorrow by way of warming up for the important business ahead. And there was plenty about the captain – a glint in the eye, an edge to the voice – that left no one in his presence in any doubt as to the South Africans' burning determination to avenge the defeat by the Lions a dozen years ago.
"We still live and breathe 1997 every day," he said. "This is an opportunity – a once in a lifetime opportunity for the current Springbok players – to look back fondly on something for the next 12 years. If we are to do that, we have to be successful in this series. People have written that I have a fear of failure, but this is not accurate. What I have is a desire to perform well in something that means so much to me. This is a special moment for us: in a way, it is a greater privilege to play against the Lions than it is to be selected by them. In the British Isles, players have a chance to be involved every four years. For us, the wait is three times that long."
Contrary to popular belief, none of the raft of injured Springbok midfielders has been ruled out of the Tests. Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn remain in contention – Peter de Villiers, the head coach, described Pienaar, his outside-half, as "fit as a fiddle" – while the centres Jean de Villiers and Adrian Jacobs are likely to play some part off the bench in Windhoek. Indeed, it may be that the Boks have greater resources now than they had in 2007, when they relieved England of the Webb Ellis Trophy in a tryless final in Paris.
"I'd like to think that we've moved forward since winning the World Cup, that we pose a bigger threat," the captain said. "I certainly don't think we've regressed." Did that mean he believed his team would find means of scoring tries against the Lions, of winning the series in the grand style? "The priority is just to win," he replied. "It doesn't matter to me if it takes five tries to beat them, or five penalties. I think this side has the ability to do it either way."
Sitting alongside the captain was De Villiers, the first black coach of the Springboks and a man of trenchant opinions. Chastised in some corners of the South African rugby establishment for publicly declaring his support for the African National Congress during the recent election campaign, he has also been heard wondering aloud about certain decisions taken by the Lions selectors – not least the omission from the tour party of Steve Borthwick, the captain of England, and Ryan Jones, his counterpart in Wales.
Yesterday, he let one or two new gems slip forth. Dodging the issue of his support, or otherwise, for the Springboks in apartheid-era series against the Lions, he said: "We are not here to rectify the past, or to rewrite the history books." But when pressed a little harder on the 1974 campaign, when the Lions tore through South Africa like a forest fire, winning 21 of their 22 matches and drawing the other, he responded in eyebrow-raising style. "You have to remember that in '74, the British Isles had players who were in a class of their own," he remarked. "That's over and done with. These current players are good, but they will never be like the '74 Lions. They won't be legends in their own time. I think we do have this in South Africa now and to me, it makes a big difference."
Before the tourists arrived here, there was much discussion about the possibility of De Villiers releasing Test players to their provincial teams for tour matches – a move that would have seen the likes of Smith turning out for the Natal-based Sharks, Schalk Burger appearing on the Western Province team sheet and the brilliant flanker Juan Smith laying into the Lions on behalf of the Free State Cheetahs. This now seems unlikely. While the coach agreed that for those elite players not involved in the Tests, a run in a provincial game would be a valuable second prize, he indicated that any release would not take place until after the first Test on 20 June, by which time the provincial programme will be done and dusted.
No Springboks on the Lions' case, softening people up and scoring psychological points ahead of the Test series? The tourists may regard this as good news, too.Reuse content