When Peter de Villiers laid out the roadmap for the Springboks for the 2011 World Cup season yesterday, one statement stood out above all else – he will only name his captain on the 2nd of May.
After the disaster that was the Rugby World Cup in 2003 new Springbok coach, Jake White, took little time to name his captain. Such was his faith in John Smit that he named him long before even picking his first Springbok squad.
Under White, Smit excelled as captain. Of course it was not all plain sailing as everyone will remember, where in 2006, a year before the Rugby World Cup in France the media and public wanted both to be sacked from their respective roles within the Springbok setup.
Both of course silenced their critics in the best way possibly, by winning the World Cup a year later in 2007.
Smit, along with many senior Boks including Victor Matfield decided that their future following the 2007 world event was in Europe and continued to take up lucrative deals with European clubs.
Then came the surprise selection of Peter de Villiers as head-coach for the Springboks in 2008. I say surprise because at the time (and even now), many believed the job would/should have been given to Heyneke Meyer.
One of the first things De Villiers did when taking up the job, was fly to France to chat to Smit to try and establish whether the Rugby World Cup winning captain would still be interested in leading the Springboks under De Villiers.
De Villiers quite obviously shared the same faith in Smit as a leader for the Springboks as Jake White did before him.
Smit returned and after a disastrous start to De Villiers tenure in 2008, the Springboks completed a magical year in 2009 by winning the British & Irish Lions series in South Africa, followed by a Tri-Nations title in the same year.
Many people wondered at the time if the senior Boks, including Smit of course, would call it a day after the Lions series as there was nothing really left for them to achieve. To many people’s surprise, they all stuck around. Their motivation? To be part of the first team to successfully retain the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Not many coaches in the world would have forced these players to quit. How could you? They were the toast of the rugby world at the time!
Then… the experiments started, specifically with Smit.
De Villiers believed at the time that if Smit is going to the World Cup, moving him to tighthead prop was the way to go as this would extent his career. Over and above this, the apprentice at the time and also a World Cup winner, Bismarck du Plessis, could no longer be ignored.
Most will have you believe the move to tighthead prop was a massive failure, so in 2010 Smit was quietly being re-introduced to the hooker position at Springbok level.
At the end of 2010, after yet another disastrous season for the Springboks, Smit decided to stay at home for the End of Year Tour to undergo an operation. In came Victor Matfield to take over the captaincy, but more importantly, stepping up to the hooking position was Bismarck du Plessis.
The End of Year Tour was not plain sailing for the Boks either, wins over Wales, Ireland and England were overshadowed by a shocking loss against Scotland. However, Bismarck was in scintillating form, regarded by many as the best hooker in world rugby at the time.
Fast forward to 2011, the season that will define Smit and other senior Boks and whether they deserve to be included in the Rugby World Cup squad judging on their form in the extended Super 15 competition.
Sharks coach John Plumtree had no hesitation to name Smit as his team captain for the 2011 Super Rugby event, being one of a long list of coaches who recognises Smit’s ability not only as player, but as captain.
But Plumtree faced a massive problem, in fact, the same problem Peter de Villiers faced and still face as Springbok coach.
The Sharks front-row ironically happens to be the first choice or regular Springbok front-row apart from player of the year 2010, Gurthro Steenkamp, who also missed the End of Year Tour due to injury.
Plumtree had to make the decision on who will make up his front-row between the Beast, Bismarck, John and Jannie du Plessis, all players who represented the Springboks in 2010.
His solution? Again ironically enough not far from what Springbok coach Peter de Villiers tried…
“John Smit, having the ability to play anywhere in the front-row will cover all three positions in the front-row.”
Ingenious, or foolish?
He stuck to his word too. After one/third of the Super 15, Smit was selected on the bench after an early season niggle against the Blues and Force and came on as hooker, he played tighthead against the Rebels, and loosehead against the Chiefs and Crusaders.
Some of these selection were injury enforced, but the fact that John Smit’s starts had been limited to both prop positions, and none in his Springbok position of hooker, has done him absolutely no favours.
I made mention of the fact prior to the start of the season that Smit’s ability to cover all three positions is a massive bonus, and one that would serve the Sharks extremely well, but covering these positions, should not mean starting him in all of them when you have specialists available.
John Smit is a hooker, and in Bismarck du Plessis and Smit the Sharks (and Boks) arguably have two of the top 3 or 5 hookers in world rugby today. Smit’s role therefore should primarily have been as a hooker, who in a crisis, can pack down at either prop (the operative word being crisis).
Plumtree’s obvious dilemma came by naming Smit captain which has seemingly forced him to start Smit whenever fit, even if that means at prop while having Jannie or Beast or even young Van Staden having to shift to the bench.
It is the wrong decision.
The Sharks are in an enviably position to rotate Smit and Bismarck throughout the tournament, having two of the best hookers in world rugby fit and fresh for the duration of this marathon, and more importantly, in top form for the Boks later this year.
If captaincy is the issue I believe Plumtree is getting this wrong too.
A captain’s role during the 80 minutes he spends on the field in a match, probably makes up 20% of his job as the team’s leader. The Sharks have also shown that they have many capable on-field leaders in their ranks that can easily keep things together in the absence of Smit if he is starting from the bench, or rested completely.
And although it goes against conventional thinking, there would have been nothing wrong with naming Smit squad captain but not necessarily team captain of the match-day 22 if he comes from the bench.
The problem that Peter de Villiers face, is that the only player that could possibly challenge Smit for the role of Springbok captain for the 2011 season and World Cup, Victor Matfield, is not covering himself in glory either at the moment.
Whether it is a question of EITHER Smit or Matfield as captain, or EITHER Smit or Bismarck as hooker, I go back to what I said last year – ‘Why should it be a case of either, if we can have both?’
Peter de Villiers will arguably make the most difficult, and single most important decision on May 2nd, and if I can leave him with one thought, or one example, it would be the decision taken by Nick Mallet months prior to the Rugby World Cup in 1999, where he decided to drop his long-standing captain Gary Teichmann, mainly thanks to public and media pressure similar to what we see now.
He would be well served to look beyond what is said now about a player like Smit right now, and rather concentrate on knowing what he brings to the team and his importance if we are to retain the Rugby World Cup.