Springbok legend Juan Smith hopes to end his fantastic career at the 2015 World Cup in England. JON CARDINELLI in Pretoria, reports.
What has Juan Smith brought to the Springbok squad in the past couple of weeks? SARugbymag.co.za asked John McFarland this question on Tuesday, and the response was emphatic.
‘He’s a shining example,’ said the Bok defence coach. ‘He shows every player what can be achieved if you never give up, if you never stop believing.’
Smith is back with the Boks for the first time since 2010. Head coach Heyneke Meyer hasn’t made any promises to the player regarding game time, and he may have to wait a while before adding to his 69 caps.
Which is fine by Smith. Normally a stern and softly spoken character, Smith has failed to contain his enthusiasm over the past two weeks. He was full of energy at Monday’s training session at Loftus Versfeld, and wore a beatific smile for the session’s duration.
Smith is back in the Bok camp after a horrendous struggle with injury and, at the moment, he is just happy to be part of the squad.
‘It's been a long road back,’ Smith said on Tuesday. 28 months and five operations to be exact. Smith officially retired in early 2013, and reveals that the final operation he underwent was not for the sake of his career. At that point, he just wanted to walk and have a normal life. Dreams of a comeback were shelved.
Shelved, but not forgotten. He dusted off those aspirations a few months later. French giants Toulon came calling, and the man who had promised never to leave his beloved Bloemfontein was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. A season with Toulon yielded more than just European Cup and Top 14 winners medals. It gave him a second chance.
A dream was realised when he received the call-up from Meyer. Victor Matfield had suffered a knee injury, and the Boks needed an experienced player to cover lock and loose forward. Smith was drafted into the squad, and put to work.
It’s an incredible story, although there may be more chapters in the offing. Smith described the two recent title wins and his season with Toulon as ‘an awesome experience’, and the call-up from Meyer as ‘the cherry on top’. He is grateful for this opportunity, but is also determined to add to his legacy.
‘I suppose you could say that whatever happens from hereon in is a bonus,’ he told this website. ‘That 28-month period was a very dark time in my life. I was stuck in the same frustrating cycle. I would start rehab, and then there would be another setback and I would need another operation. It was very difficult.
‘But everything happens for a reason. I got the chance to play again, and to learn from playing alongside some awesome players at Toulon such as Jonny Wilkinson. Now I am grateful that I am back at the Boks.
‘I’ll admit, there were some nerves when I first arrived. I have been impressed to see the work ethic and mindset of this team. I have told Heyneke that I am just happy to be here. Whether he needs me to play lock, flank, or even tighthead, I’ll do what I can for the team.
‘I want to play, and if I think back, it was always a dream of mine to play in three World Cups,’ Smith said of his goals. ‘I was there in 2003 and 2007, but missed the 2011 tournament through injury. So I want to reach next year’s tournament in England.’
Willem Alberts is the incumbent blindside flank. There are other strong No 7 options in Duane Vermeulen and rookie Oupa Mohoje, who is rated very highly by the Bok coaching staff. Schalk Burger could also feature in this position when he becomes available for the Boks at the backend of the Rugby Championship.
However, the Boks will be stronger for Smith’s presence in the greater group. He covers flank and No 8, while his sublime lineout skills allow him to slot in at lock if required.
Don’t underestimate his value as a mentor. It’s been evident in the couple of training sessions I’ve witnessed that the younger players hold him in high esteem. And who could not be inspired, as McFarland suggests, by his story?
The biggest test, however, will be on the field. He has shown during the recent European season that he still has the physicality and the pace to be a force. He should get his opportunity to prove a point regarding his value as a Test player in the coming weeks.
The 2015 World Cup is still a long way away, and Meyer has a number of good loose forwards at his disposal. But you wouldn’t bet against Smith defying the odds to win a place in that World Cup squad. He has, after all, overcome far greater difficulties in the past few years.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images