Juan Smith is getting back to his best with Toulon, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
They’re a tough lot, the Smith family. Juan, we know all about, one of the great loose forwards of his generation, who recovered from five Achilles tendon operations to relaunch his career in Toulon. But, as he told SA Rugby magazine back in September, it was the love and support of his wife that helped him through the hard times.
Now it’s the Smiths’ four-year-old daughter who’s proving to be a chip off the old block. Imagine being uprooted at such a young age, and taken halfway across the world to a strange country with a strange language. That requires strength, but Miss Smith has obviously inherited that trait from her parents and can now, to the good-humoured embarrassment of her old man, speak better French than him.
The pride Smith has for his family was evident when we caught up with him in April, as was his enjoyment of his new life in Toulon. Well, it’s summer in the Mediterranean and the weather isn’t far off from what he knew growing up in Bloemfontein.
‘The biggest challenge has come off the field,’ reflects Smith. ‘Yes, it was tough at the beginning, particularly for my eldest daughter. She was put in a school where it’s all French and at first she struggled to adapt. We almost decided that my wife would go back to South Africa with the children but we stuck to our guns and now the weather is awesome and we’re really enjoying it.’
So much so that Smith recently signed on for another season at Toulon, quashing speculation he was on the brink of joining the Bulls.
‘There were a few offers from South Africa,’ admits Smith. ‘But with all the upheaval we had coming over to France, I didn’t want to then return after 10 months. From the start, this was always a two-year project for me and I’m really enjoying life. I want to go back one day and play one or two seasons in South Africa but I’m very happy to have another year here in Toulon.’
‘There were a few offers from South Africa. But with all the upheaval we had coming over to France, I didn’t want to then return after 10 months'
Toulon must be similarly delighted that Smith has agreed to spend another season with them. When he made his debut as a replacement against Castres in September, all eyes were on the Achilles tendon that had kept him out of action for the better part of two years.
‘As soon as I started to play, I never felt the Achilles again,’ says Smith, whose fifth operation was performed by a surgeon in Bloemfontein in early 2013. Smith’s body not only stood up to the physicality of the Top 14, he is also showing glimpses of his old form.
‘If I look back four or five years and compare my form now to then, I’m very satisfied with the way I’m playing,’ explains Smith. ‘I’m getting across the field, getting over the advantage line and making my tackles.’
Smith has been instrumental in helping Toulon reach their second successive European Cup final (against Saracens in Cardiff on 24 May) and after their semi-final defeat of Munster in April, coach Bernard Laporte paid tribute to the South African.
‘You mention the backs,’ he told reporters during the post-match press conference, ‘but look at the contribution of players like [lock] Jocelino Suta and Juan Smith. They’ve run themselves into the ground, covered every blade of grass. If we’re ambitious with the ball in hand, it’s as much to do with them.’
As for Smith, reaching the final of the European Cup – as well as the knockout phase of the Top 14 – has made all the long hours of rehab worthwhile.
‘A year ago I’d just about given up on rugby,’ he said after the victory over Munster. ‘Now I’m in a final. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better.’
Whoever triumphs in the European Cup this season will be the last winners of the tournament in its present guise; next season it will be the European Rugby Champions Cup after the recent agreement between the top clubs. This was a long time in the making and asked if he’s as perplexed as the rest of us by the politics of European rugby, Smith laughs.
‘It can’t be worse than the politics in South African rugby! That’s actually the sad thing about rugby, and the last thing I will miss about it. We play the sport because we love it, but unfortunately there always seem to be guys who have another agenda, who want to make it more difficult. I try to stay away from the politics and just play the game because I love it.’
The Champions Cup is further evidence the European game is becoming ever more powerful and prosperous, though when it comes to prosperity no competition can match the Top 14. It recently signed a €355 million (R5.2 billion) TV rights deal with French broadcaster Canal Plus and already unions around the world are worried the French clubs could bleed them dry of their best players.
‘I think there is some concern from a South African point of view,’ says Smith. ‘But it’s a professional era and money will always be a big factor for players.’
As good as the money is in the Top 14, there have been more than the odd overseas star who haven’t been able to cope with the culture shock of living in France. But not Smith. They build them tough in Bloemfontein, as he and his family have proved.
'I'D GRAB BOK CHANCE'
First capped against Scotland in 2003, Juan Smith made his 69th appearance for South Africa in the win over England at Twickenham in 2010. Nearly four years on, the 32-year-old hasn’t entirely given up hope of playing for his country again, but has he been sounded out by South Africa since proving he’s back to his best with Toulon?
‘I have been contacted by the physical conditioner from the Springboks to get an overview of my fitness,’ he admits. ‘But right now there are a lot of good young players in South Africa. So the worst mistake I could make would be to set my heart on playing for the Springboks again. But obviously if the chance comes I will grab it with both hands.
‘For the moment I am enjoying playing in France but whatever happens I will make the most of all opportunities that come my way.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine