Juan Smith capped off an incredible comeback when he started for the Springboks in Salta, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Juan Smith hasn’t lost that aura. Those within the Springbok camp say he’s the hard man the rest of the hard men look up to, even more so now that he has completed the unlikeliest of comebacks, and played his first Test in nearly four years.
Jean de Villiers describes it as a remarkable story. The Bok captain said he had mixed feelings when Smith handed out the team jerseys on the eve of the June Test against Scotland in Nelspruit last year. Smith told the Boks to treasure every game as if it were their last. De Villiers couldn’t help but be inspired, but at the same time he wondered if this iconic flanker had more to give as a rugby player.
Fourteen months on, and Smith has completed his comeback to international rugby. He started for the Boks in the Test against Argentina in Salta on 23 August. It’s a game most South African fans would rather forget, as the Boks scrapped to an ugly and unconvincing 33-31 win. There is one player, of course, who will remember the game in vivid detail for the rest of his life. For Smith, it represented a dream come true, a reward after a long and painful struggle against injury.
‘He’s an outstanding example to everybody in the team,’ says Bok defence coach John McFarland of Smith and the impact of his return. ‘He shows everybody what can be achieved if you never give up. If you never stop believing.’
When SA Rugby magazine visited Smith at his Bloemfontein home last year, he had just undergone a fifth operation to his troublesome Achilles. The official line was that he had retired, although he said that once the cast was removed, he would undergo rehab and then have one final crack at a comeback. ‘It can’t end this way,’ he said.
He spoke of the surgeon who had botched the first two surgeries. He revealed the extent of the pain he had endured for a period of two years, a pain so excruciating he was often reluctant to move the injured leg at all.
He also underlined his desire to get back. He believed the fifth surgery would give him his old life back. It’s amazing to think about what Smith said in that interview, despite his seemingly bleak situation. Most people may have given up hope. Smith, as De Villiers and McFarland confirm, never lost faith.
Toulon threw him a lifeline, and Smith repaid them with some powerful showings in the Top 14 and European Cup. He would save his best for last in the European Cup final, scoring a brilliant try to put the French club in control.
Then he received the call he had been waiting for. Heyneke Meyer wanted him to join the Springbok squad.
Smith’s enthusiasm was patent in the buildup to the Boks’ Rugby Championship campaign. Meyer hadn’t given him any guarantees he would play, despite his form for Toulon and decorated record with the Boks before that injury-enforced hiatus. That was fine by Smith. As far as he was concerned, he was living the dream.
It’s an incredible story, although there may be more chapters in the offing. Smith has 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 here is a bonus,’ he says. ‘That 28-month period when I was away from the game 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’m grateful to be back at the Boks. No matter how experienced you are, you can always learn something new.’
Smith was initially drafted into the Bok squad as lock and loose forward cover. When the incumbent blindside flank Willem Alberts was ruled out of the game in Argentina with a hamstring injury, Smith was promoted to the starting lineup. His first contribution was to fly at the man receiving the high ball, and knock him to the ground. His performance thereafter was less emphatic, and afterwards he publicly lamented not living up to his old standards. He was being too hard on himself. The Bok pack failed as a unit that day, and besides, it was a miracle Smith was back on the park at all.
While Smith is 33, he has not played a lot of rugby over the past four years. He could well provide the Bok squad with a powerful and experienced blindside option in the buildup to next year’s World Cup.
‘If I think back, it was always a dream of mine to play in three World Cups,’ Smith says 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.’
Given the odds Smith has overcome thus far, you wouldn’t bet against it.
– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine