Juan Smith is set to make a timely comeback to Test rugby when he fronts Argentina in Salta, writes JON CARDINELLI.
This past June, Victor Matfield was pushed straight into the Springbok starting line-up despite a two-year absence from the international game. It was a great moment for Matfield, to make his comeback and lead the Boks in the same Test. It was, however, a very timely boost for the Boks, given the dearth of options in that No 5 position.
Heyneke Meyer finds himself in a similar position heading into the second match of the Boks' Rugby Championship campaign. The Boks are short on genuine blindside flanker options, but could be saved by the comeback of yet another accomplished veteran.
Smith hasn't played Test rugby since 2010. He battled with serious injuries for two years before retiring in early 2013. But it was not the end, as Toulon offered him an opportunity to play in Europe. South African rugby should be grateful that they did.
Smith was one of the standout performers in the recent European season, helping Toulon clinch the European Cup and Top 14 titles. He was not considered for the first Test against Argentina on 16 August, but the fact that he received a Bok recall was considered a miracle in itself.
Smith has overcome a mild hamstring strain, and is set to be named at No 7 for the coming clash in Salta. It will be a remarkable moment for a player, who told this website last week that he aims to be part of the squad that travels to the 2015 World Cup. The game in Salta will mark the first step of that journey.
The timing couldn't be better. Willem Alberts missed the first game against Argentina in Pretoria with a hamstring ailment, and will miss the second in Salta as well. As was evident in the Loftus Versfeld fixture, the Boks were less effective without a specialist blindside flanker in their ranks.
In his prime, Smith was the best blindside in the business. He offered the Boks a powerful ball-carrying option, and was an immovable object on defence.
His prowess at the back of the lineout is well documented, and Meyer has said that the Boks need this option if they are to be more effective at this set piece.
Alberts was the best forward on the Boks' most recent tour to Europe. As a unit, the Bok back row was excellent, and largely responsible for the team's success.
Meyer must replace Alberts with a like for like player. Schalk Burger would have made a fine option, but is unavailable due to club commitments in Japan. Teboho Mohoje is rated highly by the Bok coaching staff, but they are wary of exposing the youngster too soon.
Argentina are one of the best teams in the world in terms of contesting at the breakdown. They will look to spoil and stifle the Boks' momentum this Saturday, just as they did at Loftus last week. They will also look to target the youngsters, and provoke them to lash out.
Smith should make the difference this Saturday, not only with his individual play and experience, but in providing the Bok back row with some much-needed balance.