South Africa’s foreign legion strengthens the Springboks, writes MARK KEOHANE.
When Toulon defend their European Cup title against Saracens in Cardiff, there will be a number of South African-born players in both sides.
European club rugby’s season climax is very much a South African affair, and the player whose performance should command the most attention is flanker Juan Smith.
The former Cheetahs and Springbok blindside flanker retired from rugby in 2012 because of a problematic Achilles injury. After a premature return to the national squad in 2011, Smith quit the game after just one Super Rugby warm-up match in 2012. He said he couldn’t function on one leg. He said the medical opinion in South Africa was that he would never play again.
Two years later Smith is one of the stars of Toulon and in the past six months he has shown all the characteristics that made him a World Cup winner in 2007 and one of the world’s best loose forwards over a sustained period of time.
Toulon, in the south of France, has done wonders for Smith’s psyche as a player and a person. It has rejuvenated him and allowed him to prosper away from the daily scrutiny of the South African rugby public.
Springbok flanker Joe van Niekerk joined Toulon six years ago. He was also told he was not capable of playing again because of lower back problems. Toulon inspired Van Niekerk, who in turn inspired so many at the club.
Bakkies Botha, who joined Toulon after the 2011 World Cup, has also become a local favourite. Botha, in Toulon red, is every bit as fearsome as Botha in Bulls blue and Springbok green.
Toulon also rejuvenated Botha’s career and his consistent performances in the Top 14 and in the European Cup earned him a Springbok recall in 2013, which ended with him being influential in the Boks’ 19-10 win against France in Paris. It was the first time Botha, as a Springbok, had beaten France in France.
Good things come to those who wait. If that is the case, very good things are going to come the way of Smith, who has progressively improved his match fitness and regained the confidence of a world-class flanker.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will view the European Cup final as a trial match when he considers his options for the 2015 World Cup squad.
Meyer has always embraced a philosophy that encourages picking the best South African players, irrespective of where they are based. I have agreed with this approach, but there are plenty who don’t want Meyer to be selecting overseas-based players.
The best should play, especially in a World Cup year. And I hope Meyer remains strong in his view that the Springboks should be a representation of the best South African players available.
Smith is one of those players. Botha is another, as is Toulon wing Bryan Habana.
Veterans like Danie Rossouw (who will retire at the end of the season) continue to produce world-class performances, while at Saracens there isn’t a weekend in which a South African-born or schooled player doesn’t excel.
Toulon have invested in many foreign nationalities to become the premier club in Europe. Saracens have done it differently. The club is a mixture of English and South African and the club has also consistently produced outstanding results in the English Premiership.
This year is the first time the club has made it to the final of the European Cup.
Jonny Wilkinson’s final farewell against his England successor Owen Farrell will dominate the headlines. A year ago the two teams met in a play-off at Twickenham and Wilkinson dominated Saracens and Farrell. Don’t be surprised if it is the same in Cardiff. Wilkinson, like the South African veterans at Toulon, has played inspired rugby in the past three seasons. He is as good now as he has been at any stage of his international career. A change of scenery also did wonders for his psyche.
Wilkinson vs Farrell is the battle that will determine the outcome of the final, but the hooker showdown between South Africans Craig Burden and Schalk Brits will be epic.
This will be the match in which Wilkinson finally says his goodbye to Europe, but hopefully it will be the match where Smith announces his return to the Springboks.
– This column first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images