EXCLUSIVE: John Smit ended his international rugby career as the most capped South African ever, having played 111 times for the Springboks, 83 of those as captain – itself a world-record feat.
The 33-year-old was well aware during his playing days that he wasn’t every South African’s first choice to lead the Green and Golds at the highest level, not that it tempered his enjoyment of the role. “My position was questioned since the day I was made captain,” Smit revealed to Sport360° during a visit to the capital with his club team-mates hosted by Abu Dhabi Saracens. “It’s just part and parcel of what you want to do, if you want to climb to the top of the tree you’ve got to be aware that you might fall off at some stage.”
The hooker from Pietersburg certainly made it all the way to the top branch of world rugby. Aside from his feats with the Springboks, Smit played 12 seasons in Super Rugby for the Sharks, either side of a single season in France with Clermont Auvergne after lifting the World Cup. By the time he left again after last year’s tournament in New Zealand, this time to London and Saracens, he had pulled on his home state’s jersey 100 times, a record for the Durban-based franchise.
Uniting a nation
While he accepts “winning helps”, the proudest achievement during his time as Springboks captain was not lifting the World Cup, or even leading his country to six victories over heated rivals, New Zealand. No, it is something a lot more profound than anything that happened merely within the confines of the rugby field. “I think the thing that I’m most proud of in my time as captain is probably the effect the Springbok team has, or hadn’t had in the past and now has, over the people of South Africa,” Smit explains, referring to the way in which the team, once a symbol of Apartheid oppression has been adopted by the new Rainbow Nation.
“When I started the Springboks were supported strongly by a certain minority group of people in South Africa and when I finished, literally people were walking the streets of every colour wearing the green and gold and referring to players that I’d played with by their first names. For me, that was the thing in the last eight years that the Springboks have had the most effect on.”
The country has come a long way since President Nelson Mandela famously handed the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park in 1995. Peter de Villiers became the first non-white coach of the Springboks when he took the reins in January 2008, and while his coaching methods and outspoken nature drew criticism, according to Smit he made the national team accessible to a wider audience in their homeland.
“Now the majority of the country believe the Springboks represent them whereas in the past the Springboks were regarded as an Apartheid icon,” Smit continued. “Madiba (Mandela) had a massive part in changing that and getting the ball rolling and it was then up to the players and the teams and the coaches. Peter de Villiers, probably his biggest contribution to South African rugby was the fact that he made us touchable to the people and approachable, and people really enjoyed us.
“The most amazing moment I suppose in the last few years, there were two; arriving back after winning the World Cup in 2007 with thousands of people not being able to get into the airport and going on a bus tour for three days; and then leaving for 2011’s World Cup where we could barely get out of the country for the thousands of people lining the streets and trying to say goodbye.”
Smit made his own farewell to the Green and Gold jersey in New Zealand, as the Springboks lost 11-9 to Australia in the quarter-finals despite producing their best display of the whole tournament. Again, the hooker feels little animosity towards the circumstances that brought the curtain down on his record-breaking international career. The 33-year-old adds: “When you play internationally and you play from World Cup to World Cup, you are either going to go out in a blaze of glory or you are going to go out in a quarter-final or semi-final. So, it is a risk you take in a World Cup year and it’s not one that I wouldn’t have taken again, given the chance.
“Disappointing to lose out in a quarter-final but we went there with a good team that had the potential to win, played well, got better and better as the tournament worked out and then lost in an epic Test match against a good team, so I can’t cry too much about it. Our chances were there for us to take, we didn’t take them and we didn’t win the World Cup, that’s our fault and not anyone else’s.”
Smit had originally planned to walk away from all forms of rugby after the quadrennial tournament, but a conversation with his wife prompted him to give it one last go in the English Premiership with Saracens. He admits his transition to the northern hemisphere was made easier by the fact he was joining a club that boasted 12 players from South Africa, although good friend Deon Carstens has since returned to their homeland.
“The Premiership’s a tough tournament because you can lose to pretty much everyone who plays in it,” he says. “Everyone makes this massive issue about north versus south but the guys all pick up the same weights, they all eat the same food and they all want to smash each other in the same manner.”
With Saracens four points behind Premiership leaders Harlequins and well on course to make the end of season playoffs, Smit could well be smashing up opponents for a while yet.
Favourite holiday destination? Home (Durban) – I’m never there!
Car collection? I’m an American fan, so I’ve got a ’67 Fastback and a ’65 convertible, both Mustangs – Mustangs are my game.
Favourite sport other than rugby? Tennis
Favourite sportsperson? It’s changed but it’s always been a tennis player. People think I’m crazy but I used to be a massive Ivan Lendl fan when I was growing up because that was my dream. Then Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, so it’s always been tennis for me.
Best player you ever played with? That’s a difficult question… I’d probably say Victor Matfield because I’ve played with him for so long and achieved quite a bit with him.
Toughest opponent? As a team, there’s only really one Test match that counts in a year and that’s against the All Blacks but as an individual I had the privilege of playing against Ireland’s Keith Wood, who was a guy I enjoyed playing against because he was tough.
* John Smit was talking to Sport360°’s Martyn Thomas at the British School Al Khubairat as part a Q&A and coaching clinic ogranised by Abu Dhavbi Saracens.
A year ago, John Smit was contemplating his future, post-World Cup and it did not involve rugby. Now, the 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok captain is set to pen the final chapter in his stellar rugby career and it involves the small matter of playing for English champions Saracens.
Thu, 27 Oct 2011 13:17
The next chapter…
The 111-cap veteran landed in London with his family on Tuesday to start a two-year contract at Saracens and we found the former Sharks stalwart in high spirits when he was unveiled to the English media the following day.
“Obviously I know a few of the boys here from South Africa, but I haven’t even met all the guys yet… that’ll have to wait until Thursday’s first training sessions,” he replied when asked about his new surroundings.
“It was a really easy trip over though,” he added. “I was dreading the flight with two kids, but they slept virtually the whole way and we landed – with all our bags – and were whisked off with minimal fuss to start our new chapter at Saracens.
“It’s been a busy day or two… but it could have been a lot more hectic!”
Whilst Smit’s seamless arrival is certainly a good omen for life at Saracens, he is well aware – as one would expect – just what lies ahead for him, his wife and their children over the next two seasons.
“This is a great opportunity for me… and for my family,” he told this website.
“A year ago I was ready to hang up my boots for good after the World Cup. I mean the last six or seven years have virtually been a matter of life or death for me in terms of results – as captain of the Sharks and the Springboks… I had a big responsibility.
“My previous stint abroad [at Clermont in France in the 2007/08 season] was an invaluable experience – for me and my family. Now, it’s a bit different. For starters, my kids are at an age where they will remember this experience and will be richer for it as they grow up.
“However, for me, selfishly, it’s another chance to play some rugby – but to worry about that only. I have a different job description [here] and I intend on enjoying myself and just contributing as much as I can but in a different way.”
So, what then is his exact job description at Saracens… and for how long?
“Well, I signed for two years but right now I’m not thinking beyond the next month,” he joked.
“Saracens’ vision is to have two good players in every position – I’m joining the club as a hooker. A guy like [fellow South African hooker] Schalk Brits has played over 60 matches in his two years here, so I’ll hopefully be able to help as they look to rotate their players during [what is] a long season.
“I’d love to play for as long as possible… but, like I said, I’m here for at least two years, so I’ll just take things as it comes.
“Obviously, first and foremost I’d like to contribute as much as a player, but I’m also here to pass on as much experience as possible and, in the process, to make as much of a difference as possible.”
Of course, the past few weeks have not been the most memorable for Smit – a proud Springbok and a record-breaking captain, player and South African – after the Boks were unable to defend their World Cup title in New Zealand.
Said Smit: “This move has probably helped me a bit… it’s been a welcome distraction from the World Cup torment [after losing in the quarterfinals to the Wallabies earlier this month].
“Four years ago I was in a completely different frame of mind heading over to France and it would have been tougher for me heading to Saracens now as a World Cup winner – from an emotional point of view.”
Smit expects to make his debut for Saracens at some point over the next fortnight – “the coaches want to get me up to date first” – but he is already eyeing a trip back to his homeland early next year when the English champs take their Heineken Cup tie against Biarritz to Cape Town in January 2012.
“It’s an amazing, ground-breaking move,” said Smit of his club’s decision to move their Pool 5 meeting with their French opponents to a different continent.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to Cape Town in the middle of January,” he chuckled, “normally we’re stuck in 100% humidity in Durban doing Super Rugby pre-season work!
“Look, I won’t lie, in-season trips to the Oktoberfest and Miami – not to mention watching boxing title fights, live – certainly didn’t hinder my decision to come here, but this is dynamic club and taking that match to Cape Town is just another way to help build the Saracens brand outside of England.”
By Howard Kahn
* This chat was made possible by Saracens Rugby Club. Simply ‘like’ the Saracens Facebook page and you could win a Springbok jersey signed by John Smit himself!
** Find out tomorrow what John Smit thinks about the Springboks – why their fourth-place ranking is a mockery and why the Bok coaching position is so crucial in a rugby-mad country like South Africa.
Amidst the vigorous debate surrounding head coach Peter de Villiers and his ticket – or not – to the World Cup, people seem to have rather tiptoed around another complex issue: is it really so clear-cut that John Smit will reassume the team leadership reins from stand-in Victor Matfield?