Sport Rugby

Monday 18 December 2017

Warrior instincts make Smit a worthy centurion

John Smit. Photo: Getty Images
John Smit. Photo: Getty Images

Peter Bills

Scrums. Let this one-time (and pretty ordinary at that), long-retired scrum-half try to tell you about them.

These front-row warriors are truly special men. For the explosion of aggression and the crushing impact of engagement, they latch tightly onto one another's bodies, as if seeking solace and protection in close proximity.

The hooker is the focal point, the fulcrum of the pack. He leads the charge of human bodies, steadies and readies himself for the impending blow. Let us say that nowadays, there are on average 20 scrums in a match. In times gone by, in a more staid type of game, there were far more.

Then there are the daily practice sessions where these men hone their technique. Perhaps a hundred or more scrums in a week? If a season for these men lasts more than 40 weeks, and they play up to 30 games in that time, you can do the sums yourself.

On YouTube there is a short sequence where New Zealand's giant 1.95m, 115kg lock-forward Brad Thorn catches the ball and starts to run forward. In the blink of an eye, this huge man is suddenly hurled backwards. Springbok captain and hooker John Smit has hit him so hard in a tackle most of the air in the two men's lungs has been sucked out by the impact.

Smit, who has been playing top-class rugby since the last years of the last century, has subjected his body to gruelling physical torture. Hence our respect for a man who, this Saturday in Johannesburg, will win his 100th Test cap for the Springboks, 74 as captain, which is a world record.

Smit becomes just the second South African to win 100 caps after Percy Montgomery. But the latter was a full-back, far removed from the constant physical excesses of Smit's role. Never in the course of those 100 caps has he taken a backward step. The punishment he has willingly inflicted upon his body is unimaginable to most human beings.

Just how onerous is the front-row forward's life? Another South African, Stade Toulouse loose-head prop Daan Human, puts it like this: "I won't say you ever get used to the blows you take as a front-rower but you get accustomed to them after a while. However, they build up and you can't keep taking them forever.

"John is extraordinary because he has played the game at the highest levels in all three front-row positions. Very few players have ever done that. We know him as a hooker and more recently as a tight-head at Test level but I saw him play loose-head prop for Clermont Auvergne when he had that spell in French club rugby. It is not everyone who can shift to another position, but John did that."

Eddie Jones coached Australia to the 2003 World Cup final and was assistant to Jake White when South Africa, led by Smit, won the title three years ago. How does he assess Smit?

"Firstly, he is a very good hooker, in all senses. He runs a scrum, in that he is the focal figure, the one leading the scrummage as a unit. He is strong and committed but he also knows so much about scrums.

"Then there is his line-out work. He is one of the best throwers in world rugby -- he had a 100pc accuracy rating in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, which was a phenomenal figure.

"In open play, he carries the ball well and makes his tackles. But above all, he is a leader; he sets examples on and off the field. To me, the hooker is the centre of a team and when he is a leader too, it helps greatly. In this instance, John is a truly great captain."

Others speak of Smit's unselfish approach, his sense of team first, individual a distant second. It is said he is far more concerned and pre-occupied with turning around South Africa's (thus far) disastrous Tri-Nations season than thinking about his own personal milestone this weekend.

In every sense, John Smit is a worthy recipient of his 100 caps and entry into rugby's most exclusive club of all.

Irish Independent

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