How Smit got Leonard’s Lions kit

Former British & Irish Lions prop Jason Leonard has recounted how he came to give a young John Smit his Lions kit during their tour of South Africa in 1997.

Leonard, who currently serves as the British & Irish Lions chairman, was in conversation with the former Springbok captain hosted by the SA Rugby Legends association as part of the buildup to next year’s Lions tour of South Africa.

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During the conversation, Smit – who would lead the Springboks to a series victory over the Lions in 2009 – recalled how he got his first taste of playing against the Lions when he came off the bench for the Sharks during the 1997 tour.

As the story goes, Smit scrummed against Dai Young when he came on to the field and after the game, Young wanted to swap shirts with Smit, but Smit was eager to hold on to his Sharks jersey as it was one of his first senior appearances for the franchise.

‘It was a good game. I remember coming off the bench. We won the game and were sitting in the change room afterwards having a couple of beers,’ Leonard told Smit. ‘Dai is a great guy, I’ve got a lot of time for him. Dai went on a Lions tour in ‘89 and then he went professional in rugby league and missed the tour in ‘93 to New Zealand, but he got another opportunity in ‘97 to South Africa.

‘I saw Dai go off. In those days, you’ve got your shirt, shorts, socks, maybe a tracksuit top and bottom. You want to go and swap with as many people as possible if you can get your hands on stuff. In those days, it was just turning professional in that aspect. So it was still very much an amateur tour in that aspect. It was more about what you could beg, borrow and steal in a way.

‘So, obviously, Dai went into your change room to try and get your kit. He came back in and was a bit miffed, to be honest. He came back in with his own kit, he didn’t offload it to you or any of the other boys. I asked him what’s the problem. He said the young kid didn’t want to swap shirts. I said, “You do know he is a baby? This is literally his first start in his representative career, of course he isn’t going to swap. What do you care, Dai? You’ve got Lions kit coming out of your ears. You should be handing it out, in that aspect.” It was in his head that you have to swap.

‘So I just picked up my gear and walked next door, tapped on the door and Ian MacIntosh opened the door. He is a lovely guy, but his eyes were going in different directions. He asked what the matter was. I asked to speak to the young kid. I do remember him barking your name and I have to say, that would have made me jump to attention as well. I just heard him shouting “Smitty! Smitty! Come here!” You came to the door and you saw me with the kit and you were very polite. I did laugh because you actually called me Mr Leonard. My father is always called Mr Leonard, not me. You said, “Sorry, Mr Leonard, but I can’t swap shirts because it is my first season playing.” Obviously you were a local boy as well, so it meant a lot to you. I said, “No, you have it wrong. I’ve not come here to swap. I’ve come here to give you my kit because you are obviously a very talented young player and you are going to be around for years. So, please, take this. I don’t want any of your kit. You played a great game, so here you go.’

‘That’s what rugby is all about,’ Leonard added.  ‘That’s what touring is all about. We made a friendship about that and a few years later, you came a presented your shirt to me at Twickenham in 2001. I’ve still got that somewhere and have a lot of pride in that shirt. It’s a nice story, but it’s also what our game is all about.’

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Photo: Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images

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Dylan Jack