Juan Smith has shown through his performances for Toulon that he has more to give as a top-flight rugby player, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It will be remembered as one of the moments of the 2014 season. The European Cup final between Toulon and Saracens was delicately poised at 13-6 with only 22 minutes remaining. Mathieu Basteraud broke down the right flank, and fired a pass to Juan Smith.
The pass drifted behind its intended target, but Smith drew it in, without breaking stride. He ran at the defender and then offloaded to his back-row teammate, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, who then passed the ball back to Smith.
The finish and the celebration was something special. Smith, who thought his rugby career was over some 12 months previously, had scored the decisive try in the European Cup final. You could see what it meant to him as he beamed before crashing over the tryline. Toulon were out to a commanding lead, but more importantly in a South African rugby context, Smith was back. Emphatically so.
Two months later, and Smith has received the call from Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer. The Boks are in trouble at No 5, having lost Pieter-Steph du Toit, Flip van der Merwe, and most recently Victor Matfield to injuries. South Africa's loose forwards are exhausted following a draining Super Rugby season. Smith has been drafted in to cover as many as three positions for the Rugby Championship.
It's a brilliant call, and not just for the player. Some will mark it as a fairytale ending, a just reward for a player who has battled so valiantly to overcome his career-threatening injuries. While that is true, we should expect far more from this individual. Smith has more to give, and will strengthen the Bok squad.
I can hear it now, the ill-informed bleating from that sector of the rugby community who believes Meyer should not consider players who were involved in that monumental 2007 World Cup campaign. Those people obviously weren't watching the European Cup final two months ago, where Smith showed his speed, handling skills, and vision to complete a crucial try.
Smith is 33, but unlike his younger counterparts, he hasn't played a lot of rugby in the past four years. As witnessed in that successful campaign for Toulon, he has lost none of his trademark physicality, and is evidently up to the pace of the modern game.
He has something to offer the Boks, and not just as cover. Meyer may opt to use Smith as a lock in the coming weeks, which is understandable given the player's lineout pedigree. Smith was one of the set-piece standouts for the Boks at the 2007 World Cup, and sharpened this aspect of his game in subsequent years. Matfield received much of the plaudits, but within the Bok camp, Smith was often lauded for his contributions at the tail of the lineout.
Nobody is expecting him to replace Matfield, but he can do a job at No 5. While he will need to familiarise himself with the new lineout calls and systems in the coming weeks, he has played alongside many of these Bok players before.
Meyer had initially planned to bring Smith into the Bok mix this past June. It was subsequently decided that Smith needed a break after a gruelling season for Toulon, and that he would only join the Bok squad later in 2014.
The recent injury to Matifeld has fast-tracked Meyer's plans, and Smith is likely to add to his 69 Test caps in the coming weeks. Some will view it as a remarkable comeback and the culmination of years of hard work. It could, however, be seen as a new beginning. Smith will add value to the Bok squad in the next few months and in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup.
Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP Photo