RYAN VREDE, writing in the April 2013 issue of SA Rugby magazine, discovers that while the past two years have been a nightmare for Juan Smith, he hasn’t lost hope of ending his career on his terms.
We’re sitting in Juan Smith’s living room in an upmarket Bloemfontein estate. This interview was supposed to take place in hospital while Smith recovered from another Achilles operation, his fifth in just under two years. Fifth.
I’m grateful when he calls to say he has been discharged. I’ve got no personal relationship with Smith but I don’t want to see a Springbok icon, one who has won everything he can at Test level, laid prone. I want to remember him for the performances that made him the best blindside flanker in the world. I’m also not sure in what emotional state I’ll find Smith in hospital. Anyone who has endured an extended stay in one will know there are few other places more maddening, more soul destroying. How much more so for a man who relies on his body to write cheques.
A thick cast that comes up to his calf muscle is moulded to his left leg. He’ll wear it for three months. At this point Smith’s story becomes a difficult one to tell because after that period he’ll return to rehab with the hope of playing one last season. So I’m not writing a tribute-style piece, although he insists the official line is that he has retired. But he wants his story to end properly. He wants closure.
‘I’ve said I’m retired and there is a strong possibility it will stay that way. But I want to believe that this time the operation will be successful. I’d feel a deep sense of emptiness if it ended this way. It can’t end this way. I need some closure or I’m scared I’ll live with this feeling for the rest of my life.’
Smith played 60 minutes of rugby in this year’s pre-season with only part of his Achilles tendon attached to the bone. Digest it. He had a chunk of the back of his boot cut out to relieve the pressure it was exerting on the affected area. It offered only partial relief. Of course it did. He was operating on just threads of tendon, remember.
I’m not sure exactly what that says most about Smith. It is self-evident he has an unnaturally high pain threshold. Or perhaps he has somehow developed a way to mute the sensory messages his brain would have been screaming at him. It was after this that he had to go under the knife. Again.
It says he is brave and committed and all the other things we’ve been conditioned to attribute to feats of this kind. Yet bravery and commitment alone cannot facilitate such a feat. There had to be something more.
He was desperate, Smith tells me. Desperate to play again, desperate for his career not to die before the fierce competitor in him did. Desperation was the most powerful of the myriad drugs he was on.
Is there anything worse than having your life and livelihood compromised at the hands of others?
Smith calls me over to where he is sitting. He has pulled up photos he requested to be taken during some of his surgeries. His mobile screen is a wash of scarlet, draping sinew, off-white bits of tendon.
‘You see here,’ he points to what he tells me is where his tendon is supposed to be. ‘This time they’ve inserted clamps to this area, and the doctor has reattached parts of the tendon that were left unattached in the previous surgeries.’
Smith’s expression changes notably when he speaks about his previous three surgeries in Pretoria (the first and last of the five were in Bloemfontein). They were botched, he asserts.
‘I could describe my feelings towards that surgeon in very, very strong terms but I’ll hold my tongue,’ he says. ‘This time when I had the surgery in Bloemfontein, they could not believe what they found. I can’t tell you what it feels like to know my life could have been so different.’
Smith says he has lived with pain for the past two years. I ask him to describe the level of that pain.
‘It’s excruciating. Any sudden movement would send it off. Day after day, for two years. You have to keep reminding yourself that there are people in far worse situations than yours. People with terminal conditions. Also, the hope of playing again sustained me. So I kept going back to rehab, kept doing the exercises, kept the projected comeback date in mind.’
Smith’s wife Caroline strolls into the room holding their newborn son, tailed by one of their two daughters.
‘Then there’s the issue of being the father I want to be,’ he continues. ‘I want to be able to play with my girls outside, but I’ve had to do that sitting on a chair because the pain wouldn’t allow anything else. I’ve always wanted a boy and now that I have one there are so many things I have planned to do with him. You know, father-son stuff, stuff that will stick with him into adulthood. So I’m hoping hard that this time the surgery will be successful. I want to play rugby again, but I’d trade that for being able to play properly with my kids again.’
But while Smith’s injury trouble has caused him a great deal of suffering, it would have paled in comparison to the heartbreak he endured from the tragic death of his father, Giel, in 2010. Smith wasn’t even in the country when it happened. Having spent days by his bedside while he recovered from Rift Valley Fever, Smith joined the Cheetahs in Australia assured that his father was past the danger point.
‘I felt that after my dad died everything fell apart. We had a strong bond, despite the nonsense some newspapers wrote at the time,’ Smith says. ‘I mean, we wouldn’t hug or anything like that, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t close. He’d watch every game and afterwards we’d sit together and watch it again. He’d give me his thoughts on what I did well and what I could do better. We also farmed together and he taught me everything I know about the business. That’s where I miss him most.’
I’m struck by how resilient Smith is despite his circumstances. Privately, I’m sure he struggles to reconcile what has happened. There is a vulnerability about him that comes through the tough exterior. He’ll never share the pain, though.
‘I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, and I feel like if I talk to anyone about it they will feel sorry for me.’
I ask him whether he’s received any words of encouragement from good friend André Venter, who knows suffering. The former Bok hard man was diagnosed with transverse myelitis (a disease of the spinal cord that has resulted in his paralysis).
‘No André doesn’t like to talk about his condition, so with respect to him, neither do I,’ he says.
‘What about anyone else?’ I probe, hoping to ascertain what support structure he’s had.
‘My wife has been great throughout. She’s lived this with me. My mom has done everything she can do. But like I said, this is my battle, I don’t want anyone else to be burdened by this.’
Yet we’re all invested in Smith’s fortune. He is one of the few players who is universally liked and highly respected by the South African fraternity. He also commands much respect abroad. I sense that both those parties feel his pain but are content in the knowledge that they’ve seen the best he can offer. Former Springbok captain John Smit disputes this, though.
‘I played with and against Juan for a decade or so. Nobody could beat him for the consistency of performances for the Springboks. The guy just never had a bad game. But I really felt there was more to come from him. I don’t think we’ve seen his best. Which is scary because of how bloody good what we have seen has been.’
‘I feel what he is saying is true. You build up all this experience and you get to the point where that experience benefits you in games. But now I find myself unable to play when I think I have two, maybe three of my best years ahead of me. Even in those pre-season matches, I felt like I made a difference. That’s a big part of why I can’t give up completely. I’ve got a lot more to offer.’
So, what if this is the end? What if the memories of this formidable man are the ones we have to cherish? Then let us celebrate him. This will, of course, be harder for Smith, but I suspect he will, in time, get perspective and rid himself of the feeling of emptiness he fears.
Photos: Ria Green/HSM Images/BackPagePix
Super Rugby preview: Lions
The Lions will go into the 2015 Vodacom Super Rugby season brimming with confidence.
Super Rugby preview: Cheetahs
The Cheetahs could struggle again in this year's tournament after a mass exodus of players.
Super Rugby preview: Stormers
The Stormers are under pressure to perform in 2015 after two disappointing seasons.