x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Smit's scars of victory

With the Natal Sharks set to play in Abu Dhabi, John Smit is convinced the UAE could be a perfect place to stage even bigger rugby events.

John Smit is convinced the UAE could be a perfect place to stage even bigger rugby events.
John Smit is convinced the UAE could be a perfect place to stage even bigger rugby events.

He slides over his mobile and there is the picture of John Smit cradling his newborn son.Tyron John Smit has the same fiery red hair, but his father is hoping he won't develop the same physique that has made him the cornerstone of South African rugby for the past four years. "Hopefully he will be a backline player," laughs Smit. Rugby is already a part of little TJ's life, and he, and sister Emma, two, will determine just how long John carries on playing. The Boks captain since 2004, he feared it would be all over after leading them to a momentous World Cup win 13 month ago. But the new coach, Pieter de Villiers, had witnessed Smit's influence and leadership and a switch from hooker to tighthead prop could well see him help them defend their crown in New Zealand in three years' time. "The coach talks about it all the time and this is obviously why he has tried to push this positional change to get a bit more longevity out of my career and see if it can take me to the next World Cup," reveals Smit. "It's not impossible. I'll be 33 then and I don't think it's that old. But I think I'd be stupid to say now that my goal is to make the next World Cup because you never know what will happen. "There was a time after the last World Cup when I thought that was it. I didn't think I would be selected again because Jake White had relinquished his post as coach and we were not certain whether the new coach was a fan of mine. "My gut said that I'm now playing in France [playing for Clermont], far away, and the new coach would probably want a clean slate, but I was wrong. Here I am now, still going. I think it's in me, but it's down to my family and my body." The Springboks and family are uppermost in Smit's mind; his biggest loves. He left Clermont after just one season to return to the Natal Sharks so he could continue playing for his country. But, in fulfilling his commitment to the national team, he also had to leave Tyron and Emma with wife, Roxanne, to embark on South Africa's current UK tour. He admits: "It has been hard and I have had to watch the first four of weeks of his life on my apple mac, and thank goodness for the likes of Skype! "Tyron was born on Oct 25, the day before the Currie Cup final. He watched his first rugby game at one day old and we won the final [against the Bulls] so he was fortunate. "Then I had to leave him and the family on the Tuesday for five weeks away for work. It's not easy, but this is the sacrifice we have to make. Being a father changes you and what it has provided for me is perspective. "The day you have a child you realise your sole purpose is to provide and cherish your children. Before that, you are thinking about yourself. "Now it's amazing how everything seems so insignificant to whatever your child needs at that moment and for the rest of his or her life. "During the season, the tough part of the week is always the Monday or Tuesday and you can come back home at around 6-6.30 in the evening and they have only about another half of hour of sitting awake or bathing and it will be the best 30 minutes of the day I tell you. "Once you've had one child you wonder, why did I wait so long? it's so rewarding. But I also know I am going to have to face challenges now with what happens to my rugby career." He adds: "In France it was challenging for me and my wife, but we had a lot of time with each other. "In South Africa it's different. You can go on a five-week tour in Super 14 to play in Australia or New Zealand and then a tour with your country at the end of the season to the UK, or a Tri Nations series. You are spending a good five or six months away from home and there's no way I could sustain being away from home this much during these really great years of my children's youth. "I won't sacrifice my time at home for something I'm not passionate about. I look at what the guys have to go through these days and it would be virtually impossible to find a wife! "I was lucky I first met mine at 11, dated at 17 and married eight years later. She knew me when I was a fat little redhead and before I started playing pro rugby so I've been fortunate she's grown up with me through all these challenges." The World Cup success was one major challenge he overcame, but Smit still has goals as he prepares to face England again today in his 81st Test - breaking Os du Randt's record for a forward. A century of Tests beckons and Percy Montgomery's record of 102, but he vows to earn that accolade on merit rather than sentiment. I mention how David Beckham has achieved that landmark for England's football team through fleeting substitute appearances in recent times. Would he want the same? "I know exactly what you are saying and I could fall into that trap easily being the captain," admits Smit, sporting four stitches in the bridge of his nose, some of the scars of bruising, battling wins against Wales and Scotland. "Often you get ahead on selection because of what you bring apart from your ability to play the game and it's not something I would be comfortable with. "I have had many chats with the coach about making sure that I am the best at what I do before I can captain the team. I feel you cannot bring anything to the team even from a leadership perspective because you are not bringing your part of the bargain first; that's to be in the team on merit. It would be a dream to make it to 100, but it still feels a long way away." The Lions tour in June is the next target and in the build up to that, he expects the toughest test of his new positional switch to come at Twickenham today. Smit has been understandably frustrated by the questioning of his new role, but he hopes he can confound the critics and help the Boks make it three wins out of three on tour. "I played as a tighthead prop at high school and until I was 22 when I then moved to hooker," he fires back. "I thought the comments would simmer down, but I am still getting questions. Everyone expected me to get crumpled into a thousand pieces, but I wouldn't have taken up the challenge if I could not have held my own. "It's been in my mind since France when I was thrown in at the deep end to do it for Clermont. I quite enjoyed it and talked to the coach about it here and we took it a step forward. "At this stage of my career I just want to play. I think I'll know when the time comes to go and that's when I'm not pulling my side of the bargain for the team. I won't try to milk it through as many Tests as I can and I'll stop when I'm not good enough. "I don't think I have done too bad so far. I am using these games to see if the position is a viable option, especially for the Lions series. The game with England will obviously spark memories of their dramatic World Cup final meeting in Paris which South Africa won 15-6. Both sides have undergone changes since then, particularly on the coaching side with Martin Johnson now in charge of England. Smit, confident his side will get better, adds: "I always thought it would be on the cards for Martin. Once you have spent so much of your life in the game and got so much out of it, a guy like Martin would be wasted not being involved and I could not see any other role for him other than the highest one. "He's got such stature within the game and achieved the ultimate prize with England. People might doubt his coaching ability, but when he won the World Cup he was being coached by Clive Woodward who was being touted as one of the best in the world. So he would not be a fool in how to prepare for a Test match. "More than anything Martin has a wonderful status and that's all you need at that level. He would inspire the younger guys. "If someone said to me, Martin Johnson was coming to coach he Sharks I would see that as a wonderfully exciting opportunity. "Man management and motivation are two key aspects at this level. There's only so much you can improve on guys who are already playing at this level." Smit may well follow Johnson's path in the future as he added: "A lot of people think it's something I should get into. "I tasted a bit of it this year when I was injured and did some work for the Sharks Under 19s side. "I was sceptical at first, but it was quite rewarding at the end. I don't think it's a decision I can make on my own though. It will rely heavily on whether it's viable to carry on being away from home as much as I am now. "But rugby will never lose me. The experiences I have gained and what I have been given is just amazing and I won't hang up my boots and say that's it. "I don't want to die with all the experiences I have inside of me. I want to give back whether it's as an adviser or helping young guys get through the first years of professionalism. I am very passionate about the Sharks and the Springboks and I am passionate about growing the game of rugby around the world." You would be hard pressed to find a better ambassador. Well-respected and well-bred in the new South Africa after apartheid, Smit has united the Boks, just like Francois Pienaar did 13 years ago. The two will be in Dubai next week for a World Cup captains dinner and Smit, hailed by Victor Matfield as his country's best-ever captain, remains humble. "I've been blessed in every single way, but never in a million years did I think all this would happen to me," he says modestly. "I watched Francois lift that cup at 17 when I was still at school. At the time, I said to myself that is the most unbelievable experience. I never imagined that would happen again, let alone happen to me. "When you look back at what you have achieved and got to lift that trophy, 12 years after Francois did and see, on both occasions, how much of a positive influence it had on your country, that's amazing. "Francois, a number of his squad, and the team manager, Morne du Plessis, from the 1995 victory actually came to see us at our hotel on the Friday before the World Cup final. |"They gave us our jerseys and quite a big talk. It was very motivational. Their message was clear. We did it in '95, but our story is done now; it's time for a new story and we really believe you guys are the next chapter. "That was quite humbling from guys who had done it. They weren't jealous of the fact we were in the same position, but they were urging us on so that we could create another chapter. "The next day the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, came to wish us well. It doesn't get any bigger than that. "It helped, without a doubt. The pressure, the nerves and the tension around that week, and the last two weeks, was massive and to have something like that inspired us so much." Smit says that win has given him inner peace, taking away some pressure in one of the toughest jobs in sport. He adds: "It gives you a lot of inner confidence. It gives you that settled feeling and you feel you can achieve anything in front of you because you have achieved the biggest goal that's out there for a rugby player. "It's like being on a really good wave. Quite difficult to catch at first, but once you are on the crest it just keeps going. "We realised what it really meant when when we got home and saw the support from thousands and thousands of people. "Even a year later, everywhere I go, people still stop and say congratulations on winning the World Cup. People in South Africa were so grateful and thankful for something like that. It was something we really needed, you know. "For me, winning it has given me a peace. You spend all these years training and working hard to play rugby and not many get to top it off with the ultimate prize. "Having done that and having a few years left, I've found that inner peace is a wonderful thing to have. I've found that I've enjoyed myself so much more post-World Cup because you are not forced to play or to chase the next trophy or the next pay cheque. You are driven by passion." The latter statement is ironic considering another passion is cars, something which has brought him good and bad experiences. "In life you learn along the way and often try certain things, but as a rugby player because you don't get educated or sometimes have the experience to make calculated decisions, you get yourself in businesses that don't work," he reveals. "You make stupid mistakes of getting into business with friends and then you pay your dues. Mine was a Chevrolet car dealership. "When you get involved in a serious business that it was, and you are not there all the time, then it is a recipe for disaster. I learned that lesson quickly and it was a valuable one. I lost a lot of money. "I have told my wife I'll never be wealthy because I can't stop buying cars. I've got four, including a 1965 Ford Mustang, which is my favourite. One thing I am missing is something European and fast like an Audi R8 or a Lamborghini. "We are going to start building our new house in January in Durban so it's going to have six garages." If Smit, also a resort developer with the Elan group, carries on playing rugby until the next World Cup, he might be advised to make a bit more room in his trophy cabinet too.