Toulon’s European Cup final win against Saracens showed the quality of the European club scene and also confirmed what value the European-based South Africans will add to the Springboks, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The biggest cheer in my lounge room was reserved for Juan Smith’s try and for his inspiring performance in Toulon’s 23-6 win.
Smith, one of the unsung heroes of the Springboks' 2007 World Cup winning campaign, tore his Achilles’ tendon in 2011 and was prematurely rushed back in an attempt to get him ready for the World Cup in that year.
Smith suffered a recurrence of the injury and missed the World Cup. He returned for the Cheetahs' 2012 Super Rugby season but lasted just one Super Rugby warm-up match before announcing his retirement. The medical opinion was Smith would never recover sufficiently to play professional rugby and Smith felt that if he couldn’t play to the standard that made him one of the best international loose forwards he would not be an asset.
One of the best loose forwards in the modern era left in a way that betrayed his contribution to South African rugby. He deserved better and thankfully he got that reward in Cardiff on Saturday. Don’t be surprised if Smith is on tour with the Springboks in November.
Smith’s comeback is a wonderful story of a player who sought other medical opinions and when told there was a hope acted on it.
Smith accepted a one-year contract with Toulon and started from scratch. His initial performances were about just getting game time but within a month Smith was being talked about as one of the major influences in the Top 14.
On Saturday he showed just why the French rugby media and the Toulon rugby public so easily took to Smith. He was outstanding in the final and he is still good enough to make a contribution to the Springboks.
The rugby public in South Africa too easily dismisses the value of European-based Springbok veterans. Bakkies Botha showed why having him and Eben Etzebeth in a Bok squad is better than just having Etzebeth. Smith, on the basis of the season and Saturday’s European final, has the form and performance to match is historical international pedigree. He is also an example that nice guys can come first.
Smith was one of five South Africans in Toulon’s history-making back-to-back European titles because it was the last European Cup to be played. The others were Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Craig Burden, Michael Claassens and Danie Rossouw.
Rossouw retires after the French Top 14 final and also leaves with the necessary accolades and success. Rossouw, should Toulon beat Castres in the final, will become the most celebrated player in the modern professional era. No player would have won more titles in more countries, including the World Cup with the Springboks in 2007.
Toulon were emphatic winners and while the day in England will always be remembered as the last time legendary flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson played in Britain, South African fans should remember Saturday as the day another legend – Smith – announced, by way of performance, that he is back at the top of his game and back in the minds of the South African public and should most definitely be back in the Bok reckoning.
Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP Photo