Former Springbok captain John Smit on the Rugby Centurions, which was recently launched in London.
What is the concept behind the Rugby Centurions?
The main purpose is to try to create a platform for these players, who’ve achieved so much, to give back to the game and make a difference. Hopefully, with enough funds, we’ll be able to build programmes that will help with grassroots rugby and attend to issues in world rugby like mental health. Basically, we want to help world rugby, so it becomes the best sport.
How did your role as managing custodian of the Centurions’ foundation come about?
Gavin Varejes, a Joburg-based businessman, came up with the idea about four years ago. He asked me if I’d bring the centurions together – all the men and women who’ve played 100 or more Tests for their country – and see if they’d be willing to participate in a group like this. Afterwards, he asked me to take on the role.
What were the initial reactions when you approached the centurions?
I was quite nervous to see whether they were keen or not. I spent the better part of last year travelling the world, meeting every one of them. The best part of meeting with them was that everyone loved the idea of becoming part of a team again and then having an opportunity to give back to the game. At the gala dinner in London in November, we all got together for the first time and we had an unbelievable time. They are all giving their own time for nothing, because there is no financial benefit in a project like this. But it is to honour them – their legacy and what they’ve achieved – and then use that legacy as a tool to try to promote the game. To give you an idea, of the 54 centurions – minus those 12 that are still playing – we had 32 at the inaugural gala. That’s an outstanding start and shows the collective enthusiasm.
What has public interest been like?
It’s been incredible. We’ve seen significant growth from a social media point of view and we had over 800 people come to the dinner in London. That’s a huge turnout for our first event. However, there is a lot more interest globally than there is in South Africa.
What was it like to be around fellow Test centurions in a social environment?
Most of us have played against each other at some stage or crossed paths, but we’d never had a group of centurions together under one roof. It was a one-of-a-kind event, because never has any sports code done anything like this. I had a drink with Schalk Burger a day after the gala, and he said he had never been with so many icons in one room. It was a special occasion.
Will the centurions be involved in the charity work and grassroots development programmes the foundation aims to run?
We’ll be involved across the board; fundraising enables us to do more. The first programmes will probably focus on mental health issues and leadership skills. We want to put in place coping mechanisms for players coming in and out of the sport. To do anything, we need the funds, but that is not where the centurions’ responsibility ends. The core idea is to be doing things to develop and improve the game and fundraising will allow us to do it. It’s a means to an end.
What are some of the other major issues in rugby that you aim to address through this foundation?
We’ve obviously bounced ideas around to each other. The most accepted topics of discussion were mental health and leadership. We first have to see how we’ve done regarding monies raised before deciding what can be done now. Our projects will depend on what issues are current in world rugby at the time. We have a memorandum of understanding with World Rugby and as a partner of the Centurions club, they’ve highlighted issues they want us to help address. The list is endless.
There has been talk of erecting plaques, publishing illustrated books in honour of each centurion, producing a documentary and having a clothing line to generate funds. When can we expect those kind of things to happen?
We are still at an early stage and it all depends on the traction we get from a commercial point of view. We’ve already started an art collection, where each of the centurions goes and collects sand and grass from the field where they played their 100th Test and it gets mixed into the paint used for an action portrait. My 100th Test was in Soweto, so I got the sand and grass, chose the best action picture from my career and we reinvented it into an artwork done on a silk screen. That’s in place, but the rest will be decided in future.
Interview by Mariette Adams