x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Road to redemption

Before making his return to Twickenham this week, Martin Johnson's coaching experience at any level was minimal.

Peter de Villers faces a tough task of building on World Cup winner Jake White's legacy.
Peter de Villers faces a tough task of building on World Cup winner Jake White's legacy.

Before making his return to Twickenham this week, Martin Johnson's minimal coaching experience stemmed mainly from guest appearances at rugby clinics for children. The former England captain visited the UAE in 2006 to conduct one such session at Dubai Exiles, along with the ex-South Africa skipper Francois Pienaar. Johnson is not naturally given to singing praises, especially not towards South Africans, but he made the following statement then.

"When South Africa won the World Cup in 1995 and Nelson Mandela handed over the trophy to Pienaar that was the greatest moment in the sport's history." Johnson and Pienaar had always been the best of enemies, ever since one English Premiership clash between Johnson's Leicester and Pienaar's Saracens ended in an ugly bloodbath. The wild haymakers Johnson landed on Saracens' hooker Robbie Russell nearly cost him his job as England skipper.

Their tepid greeting in the old Dubai Exiles clubhouse showed little had been forgotten, definitely not forgiven. In short, Captain Grumpy was not in the mood for dishing out platitudes - which made his claim all the more striking. Much has changed since then. Johnson and England have since sacrificed the Webb Ellis Trophy for a start. It is back in Springbok hands, and there are fair grounds to argue their triumph in France last year was an even greater achievement than their maiden success in 1995.

It was achieved amid much more racial transformation guidelines. Jake White, the coach, knew his position was untenable. He still led them to glory and this time it was president Thabo Mbeki presenting the trophy to John Smit. Against that backdrop, was South Africa's World Cup win in Paris last year the greatest ever achievement in rugby? Smit said: "I would be very interested to see how other rugby nations around the world would cope with the environment the Springboks have had since the re-introduction to rugby.

"It's not for me to say because I haven't experienced any other international rugby environment. "But there are definitely lots of challenges that we face which other teams don't even have to think about. I would like to think it was [one of sport's greatest wins]." Smit is back leading the Boks for the Tri-Nations even though he played this season with the French club Clermont Auvergne. His move abroad was part of the reason the Boks hierarchy changed their policy of not picking foreign-based players. Butch James and Victor Matfield are also back.

The new coach Peter de Villiers has promised skin colour will not be part of his selection criteria, yet his squad contains more players of colour - 10 out of 28 - than ever before. Smit sees it as a good thing. "I wasn't surprised," he added. "I certainly felt the time had come for a new era. There is no better time than now in terms of the players that are available [to de Villiers]. The momentum has been gained. He has as much experience as Jake had when he got the job.

"When I met him for the first time in January, I was driven by his motivation. I'm very optimistic about where we are going, and believe things can only get more exciting for us." @Email:pradley@thenational.ae