Smit plans showpiece worthy of champions

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The Independent Online

It might have been worse. Nine of the Springboks who started the World Cup final with England last month, including such prominent members of the green-shirted glitterati as Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger, will face Wales at the Millennium Stadium this weekend, thereby sparing the blushes of those administrators responsible for prolonging the natural lifespan of the 2007 international season. The Cardiff venue is unlikely to be full – or even close to full – but the potential for acute embarrassment has at least been reduced.

Precious few people outside the finance departments of the respective unions see the value in staging a one-off Test at this point in proceedings, although the new world champions were doing their level best yesterday to talk up the fixture. "Any Test is a gift, an immense opportunity," said John Smit, the Bokke captain who clapped his outsized hooker's hands around the Webb Ellis Trophy in Paris and now finds himself winning a 75th cap.

"We must forget the World Cup and treat this game as our next challenge. We want to represent South African rugby to the best of our ability, and that means playing like champions." This may be Smit's final international appearance. There again, it may not, for no one quite knows how Springbok rugby, with its unique political dynamics, will unfold over the coming months and years.

Will those members of the South African hierarchy determined to promote the cause of black players force a change in selection policy? Will foreign-based players, of whom the captain is now one, be picked from abroad, or will they be ostracised unless and until they return to the republic and commit themselves to one of the provincial teams?

Smit, who joined the ambitious French club, Clermont Auvergne, after the global tournament, has clear ideas of how he would like things to develop.

"For me, it's quite simple," said the 29-year-old forward from Pietersburg. "I've played many Test matches and I hope to play many more. Selection is not something a player is owed, and it's for other people to decide who plays for the Boks. But I very much want to continue, so let's see what happens."

Percy Montgomery's injury problems allow Ruan Pienaar, flexible and multi-talented, to start at full-back, while Andre Pretorius, who did for England with a flurry of drop-goals at Twickenham a year ago and ran down the curtain on Andy Robinson's tenure as head coach in the process, comes in at outside-half for Butch James, who has joined Bath and was not considered.

Ricky Januarie replaces the incapacitated Fourie du Preez at scrum-half, C J Van der Linde shifts across the front row to fill the substantial hole created by the retirement of Os du Randt – Jannie du Plessis is the newcomer at tight-head prop – and Johann Muller takes over from the unavailable Victor Matfield at lock.

The one debutant is Ryan Kankowski, the Natal Sharks No 8. It is anyone's guess how many debutants England will field when they next take the field in February – coincidentally against Wales in the opening round of the Six Nations Championship.

It is not even clear who will be coaching them, and while the two players who did most to undermine the position of the current head coach, Brian Ashton, in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup – the Wasps forward, Lawrence Dallaglio, and the London Irish midfielder, Mike Catt – were publicly chastised by the Rugby Football Union for telling tales out of school in their respective ghosted autobiographies, they will not be formally disciplined.

Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, and Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, considered the situation in some depth before deciding against making a referral to the union's chief disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett, who was known to be less than impressed by the players' literary efforts. Both Dallaglio and Catt apologised to Ashton and admitted that the timing of their outbursts was some way short of ideal.

In light of this, together with intense criticism aimed at the players – some of it by other members of the World Cup squad – the union has opted to draw a line under the affair.

England's best under-20 players, access to whom was a key plank of last week's ground-breaking agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs, will find themselves up against Australia, Fiji and Canada in next year's inaugural world championship, which will be hosted by Wales in June.

Age-group rugby at international level used to be played by the under-19s and the under-21s, New Zealand and France are the respective champions, but has recently been restructured. The organisers, who anticipate lottery support of around £400,000, have chosen four venues for the tournament: Cardiff's Arms Park, the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, Rodney Parade in Newport and Wrexham's Racecourse Ground.

South Africa (v Wales, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday): R Pienaar; JP Pietersen, J Fourie, F Steyn, B Habana; A Pretorius, R Januarie; CJ Van Der Linde, J Smit (capt), J Du Plessis, B Botha, J Muller, S Burger, J Smith, R Kankowski. Replacements: B Du Plessis, H Van Der Merwe, A Van Den Berg, H Lobberts, W Olivier, A Ndungane, C Jantjes.

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