It was announced last night that South African loose-forward, Juan Smith, have decided to call it a day following yet another injury setback after a warm-up game against the Bulls over the weekend. Smith has battled for two years to return to the rugby field after suffering an Achilles injury in a Super Rugby match in 2011.
Announcing his retirement Smith told Die Volksblad that the only thing that kept him going in the last two years and not throw in the towel earlier was his family and his supporters who encouraged him to regain full fitness and at least retire on his own terms – but it was not to be.
What struck me personally was the collective sense of loss from the rugby community from supporters to players past and present, not only from South Africa, but across the world.
Here you had a player who hardly set foot on a rugby pitch in 24 months, yet the sense of loss expressed by those who follow the game of rugby union was almost one of losing a family member, and given the general pettiness and deeply provincialistic nature of the South African rugby supporter you get a basic idea of just what an impact Juan Smith had on the game.
It left me wondering just what makes Juan Smith such a special rugby player, and the only real reason I could come up with was that he was a player that struck a deep, old-school type of chord with the general rugby fan.
You see Smith did not go to the right school in the South African rugby system where you generally get a free passage to Craven Week and subsequent higher rugby honours as is so often the case in this country, especially in a city like Bloemfontein where only one school in particular is known to produce quality rugby talent.
He came from a little known school called JMB Hertzog and only decided to take the game seriously when his rugby mentor, Tat Botha, convinced him to try out for the Bloemfontein University team the Shimlas.
From there Smith’s career gathered momentum where he made his Cheetah debut in 2002 and his Springbok debut a year later in 2003. Sixty nine tests and 10 years later Smith will go down as one of the most respected, hard-working rugby players the South African game has ever produced.
Rugby scribes and players from all over the world were in one voice as they bid Smith farewell as a player and described him as one of the most vital cogs and one of the most physical players to play the game in any team he ever represented as a professional player.
In a world where it seems rugby players try harder to get their names and faces in newspapers and magazines than what they do to win games, I for one will miss one of the most honest individuals to ever set foot on a rugby field.
I mean does anyone for one second think that it is a mere co-incidence that the Pope decided to retire the same day Juan Smith decided to bid farewell to the game of rugby? I think not…
Go well Juan, enjoy the time with your family now and thank you for all the memories. And I am sure we will see your name somewhere down the line involved with rugby again.