Smit fired up after opening Bulls chapter

Having made his long-awaited debut for the Vodacom Bulls following a mid-season move from Cape Town, Cornel Smit is ready to stamp his mark on the URC final on Saturday.

Smit came off the bench in the closing stages of the Vodacom URC semi-final win over a star-studded Leinster to get his first run for the Bulls, six months after making a mid-season move from the DHL Stormers.

A graduate of Bishops College in Cape Town, Smit had spent all of his amateur and professional career in the Western Cape, before taking up the opportunity to move to the Stormers’ northern rivals.

“It’s amazing how quickly things change,” Smit said. “Growing up, my family were huge fans of Western Province and the Stormers, but I think it was time for me to put that aside and try to focus on what’s best for my career.

“Obviously, it’s a bit weird thinking that I’ve just played for the Bulls in a semi-final. I’m very grateful for my time at the Stormers, but I’m loving it at the Bulls as well.”

Despite arriving in Pretoria in January, Smit has had to bide his time to make his debut, caught in a stacked queue of midfielders behind Stedman Gans, David Kriel and Harold Vorster.

When he did get the call to make his way onto the field last Saturday, it was on the wing as a replacement for Springbok veteran Willie le Roux, with Devon Williams shifting to fullback.

“Everyone’s talking about it as my debut, per se,” Smit said. “But I’ve played at this level, I’ve played in the Champions Cup and almost 40 Currie Cup games.

“At the end of the day, it was just my first game for a new team, and I felt very, very comfortable if I’m honest. Obviously, there were nerves, but that’s normal, I think everyone had nerves, but I just tried to focus on my job.

“I knew I was coming on at wing, but before the game I was expecting to come on at centre. Devon [Williams], who went to fullback after playing at wing, was talking to me the whole time with his knowledge of playing on the wing – so I never felt alone.

“It would have been kind of weird doing it in the middle of the season when the team is so settled. Every game was must win because we wanted a home play-off,” Smit added.

“When you have guys like Stedman Gans, David Kriel and Harold Vorster playing as well as they are, I don’t think there’s much merit in taking them out for a newcomer. I was just patiently waiting for my chance, and I’d like to say that I was ready for it when it came, I was more excited than anything.”

Part of the Stormers squad that won the inaugural URC against Jake White’s team in 2022, Smit could play an even bigger role in helping the Vodacom Bulls win their first title when they host Glasgow Warriors in the final on Saturday.

“I didn’t personally play in that game [the 2021-22 final], but I was involved in the campaign,” Smit recalled. “It’s a little bit strange for me to come here and hear the other side of the story because my side of it is the elation of the win.

“It’s definitely something we’ve looked at, a large part of our squad has felt that pain of losing a final, as Jake says we’ve paid our school fees. It’s definitely something that’s been mentioned, but we’re not dwelling on it, it’s not like we’re trying to make up for lost time.”

Having embraced the underdog tag to upset a Leinster side stacked with Ireland internationals, the Vodacom Bulls will now have to shoulder the pressure of being built up a favourites to win the title at a packed Loftus Versfeld.

“There’s always pressure in play-off games, I’d be lying to you if I said there was no pressure,” Smit said. “[But] in the squad the culture is more that pressure is a privilege.

“Yes, some people may say we’re favourites, but we don’t look at it like that. We’re just focusing on our week as if it’s any other normal week and are trying not to let the occasion get the better of us and just play the best rugby we can.

“Whether we’re [seen as] favourites or not, anything can happen on the day. That’s what we’re prepping for, to play well on the day.”

Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

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