Smit proud of nation-building Bok legacy, reveals his captain fantastic

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Quintin van Jaarsveld

World Rugby Hall of Famer John Smit says he’s proud of the prominent role the Springboks play in uniting the country.

The record-breaking former Springbok skipper was speaking with Dr. Dean Allen on Thursday night as part of a weekly video series raising funds for the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.

Smit was there, at Ellis Park, when South African president Nelson Mandela, wearing his Springbok No.6 jersey, presented Springbok captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup following the hosts’ epic 15-12 win over the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup final.

The heroes in Green and Gold united a nation on that famous day and future Springbok generations have continued this legacy, most notably, Smit and his band of world-beaters in 2007 and Siya Kolisi and company who made it three glorious global conquests for South Africa in Japan last year.

Commenting on a photo of their crowning moment in Paris, Smit said, “I think images like that, of which we now have three, make a massive difference in a country like South Africa that has such a passion for the game yet has such a past in terms of what the Springboks used to mean to [the wider] South Africa and what it now does and how it brings people together.

“I don’t think there’s a team or a story that has such two contrasting parts. I’m proud to see that the Springbok team has become probably the most powerful unifying factor that South Africa’s had post-Apartheid.”

Rewinding to 1995, Smit remarked, “I remember being in Pretoria Boys’ High where we were part of an era where South Africa became a democracy when Madiba was released from prison and went on to become our first black president.

“Boys’ High was one of the schools that were multi-cultural and were multi-racial before we became a democracy.

“The first thing that sticks out for me is we started practicing the new national anthem. Every Friday, we’d have half an hour out in the open and learn, verse by verse, the new national anthem.

“The reason I mention this is because of the significance of what Madiba did in that time. When he went out in his campaign, he would wear a Springbok cap.

“In the beginning, he would get such grief for it because it was a symbol of Apartheid and regarded as a team that was part of a segregated South Africa. He just kept on telling the masses to get behind this team and that they were going to do something special in 1995.

“At the time, I wasn’t aware of the politics and what was happening but to sit in the stadium and hear thousands of people chanting his name and then see people walking the streets together…I mean, it took us four hours to get from Joburg to Pretoria, back to hostel – the freeways were jammed, the highway was jammed.

“It was a level of elation and unity that transcends any kind of hatred. It’s something that not all the money in the world can buy.

“That victory and what the Springboks did that day, it transcends anyone’s negativity and hate. I was fortunate to be 17 years old in the stands with one of my best friends. I luckily got that memory to hold on to, and when it became my moment to step up, I had these references to fall back on.”

Step up he did, and then some. Smit captained his country a record 83 times and played 111 Test in all from 2000 to 2011, leading them to World Cup glory as well as two Tri-Nations titles – in 2004 and 2009 – and a series win over the British & Irish Lions in 2009.

How did it feel to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on that magical night at the Stade de France following their 15-9 victory over England in the final?

“The first emotion is one of absolute relief. It’s like the world is off your shoulders because of the amount of pressure we put ourselves under and how long and hard we worked over that four-year period.

“We sat that night in the hotel with just friends and family with the cup, just soaking it in. No-one left, everyone just stayed…it was the most incredible evening. When it finally sinks in, you realise what a life-changing moment something like this is.”

Regarded by many, including Jean de Villiers, as the greatest-ever Springbok captain, Smit was asked by eHowzit to name his own captain fantastic.

“There have been some amazing [Springbok] captains over the years. Our [Players’ Trust] former chairman Morné du Plessis [who lost just two of his 15 Tests as captain] was great,” he said.

Smit, though, narrowed things down to only the captains he played under in the Green and Gold and highlighted former flank André Vos, who captained South Africa on 16 occasions.

“When I started in 2000, I was led by a guy called André Vos. André Vos, for me, epitomised the kind of leader I wanted to become. He was unbelievably consistent…he was just a good human being.

“He got dealt a pretty tough set of cards when he was relinquished of the captaincy in 2001,” Smit said of then-coach Harry Viljoen’s decision to appoint Bobby Skinstad as the new Springbok captain.

“The way he handled it, for me, was amazing. I will never forget, going to knock on his door and check how he was doing. He had these pages with all these people’s names and numbers.

“He received so many calls from all over. He couldn’t answer the phone because he was training or busy with media. He wrote down every single name and made sure he got back to them in the course of the week.

“For me, André Vos was just a warrior. He led from the front, he never-ever backed down and he never expected anything from anyone else he wasn’t willing to do himself.”

Smit, who spoke in-depth about his experience as Springbok captain, also touched on his love of tennis and teenage dream of playing at Wimbledon, his career at the Sharks (where he won the Currie Cup in 2008), Clermont and Saracens, the story behind his nickname Barney, interacting with Prince Harry at Kings Park in 2015 and shared a touching story about England and British & Irish Lions prop, Jason Leonard.

Viewers also heard from another inspirational figure, Players’ Fund recipient Lifa Hlongwa. Known as Rugby’s Caring Hands, the Players’ Fund provides assistance to rugby players in South Africa who have sustained life-altering head, neck and spine injuries.

Hlongwa shared his story, how the Players’ Fund has helped him forge a new future and the friendship he’s formed with Smit.

Next week’s episode is one rugby fans cannot afford to miss as Allen will be in conversation with a cast of 1995 World Cup winners – captain Francois Pienaar, prop Os du Randt, flyhalf Joel Stransky and manager Morné du Plessis as they celebrate the 25-year anniversary of their famous triumph.

For more information or to donate to the Players’ Fund, CLICK HERE.

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Smit with Players’ Fund recipient Lifa Hlongwa, who also shared his story.

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