2011 Inductee: John William Smit

(IRB.COM) Monday 24 October 2011
 2011 Inductee: John William Smit
John Smit is the second South African captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup

IRB Hall of Fame – Induction No.48 – John William Smit (South Africa)

Personal details

– Born: 3 April 1978 in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), South Africa
– Family:  The third son of Basil Smit, a mechanical engineer who worked in the mining industry, and Valerie Ann Whetheral Graham, a school teacher. Both his older brothers Brian and David started playing rugby at Capricorn High School in Pietersburg. He married childhood sweetheart Roxane ‘Roxy' Rech and they have two children, Emma and Tyron
– Education: Fields Primary School in Boksburg, Pretoria Boys’ High School. He also briefly attended the University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg)
– Nicknames: Smitty and  & ‘Barney’
– Other sports: Tennis, cricket and water polo

Professional career

A professional rugby player and businessman. He began his playing career with Natal Sharks, for whom he played for 12 years. He joined Clermont-Auvergne in 2007, but returned to South Africa and despite a spate of injuries he went on playing for both Natal Sharks and South Africa. He retired from international rugby after Rugby World Cup 2011e tournament. After RWC 2011 he carried on playing club rugby in England with Saracens. 


1999 – South Africa’s Young Player of the Year
2004 – Tri Nations winning captain (South Africa's first since 1998)
2005 – South Africa’s Player of the Year
2007 - Captained South Africa to Rugby World Cup success
2008 – Inducted into the Springboks Hall of Fame
2009 – Led South Africa to a 2-1 Test series win over the British & Irish Lions
2009 – Second Tri Nations title as captain
2011 – Inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame as one of 19 Rugby World Cup founders, pioneers and legends in Auckland
2012 - Laureus Team of the Year Award

Rugby career

– He started playing aged 11 as a tighthead prop for his primary school and was selected for the B team at the Stellaland age-group trials, something that was “almost unheard of for an English kid in that part of the world”
– His move to the rugby-mad Pretoria High School was significant for his future career. He started in the Under 14 age group, where he was coached by Eddie Dory and Paul Anthony, who had a big influence on his career
– In 1994, although only 15, he was selected to play for the school first XV. The opponents were Jeppe High School, coached at the time by Jake White, a man he subsequently developed a close relationship at provincial and international level
– Selected and played for Northern Transvaal (Blue Bulls) in the 1995 Craven Week. In 1996 he again went to Craven Week and was also selected for the SA Schools as the second-choice tightead prop
– In 1996, aged 18 and just out of the school, he joined the Natal Sharks, one of the 12 youngsters recruited form that year’s Craven Week. He trained every day of the week with Natal Under 19s, Under 21s and the Wildebeests (the Vodacom team)
– In December 1996 he toured Wales with Natal Under 21s
– The following year he toured Argentina with South Africa Under 19s, while also winning the Under 21 domestic competition
– While still 18 he made his debut as a replacement prop for the Sharks against Western Province, following an approach from the then Natal coach Ian McIntosh
– He was selected for South Africa Under 21s in 1997
– At the age of 19 he made his Currie Cup debut for Natal Sharks against Western Province as a replacement tighthead prop at Kings Park in 1997. His opposite number was Springbok Gary Pagel
– He became a full-time member of the Sharks squad in 1998
– He made his Super Rugby debut for Natal Sharks against the Waratahs in 1999 and finished his provincial career in 2011, having also played for the province against the 1997 British & Irish Lions and against Wales in 1998
– In 1999 he captained South Africa Under 21 in the SANZAR/UAR tournament in Argentina, with Jake White as assistant coach. South Africa won the tournament, defeating New Zealand 27-25 in the final
– With Jake White as Sharks assistant coach, Smit changed from tighthead prop to hooker, a significant move for his future career  
– Six months after his move to hooker, he made his international debut under South Africa coach Nick Mallett as a replacement hooker, replacing Charl Marais, against Canada in June 2000 at East London
– His first start as hooker in an international match was against Argentina in November 2000
– In 2001, he captained the Sharks in the Currie Cup final against the Western Province (they lost 29-24) after the late withdrawal of Mark Andrews. This was the third Sharks defeat in the Currie Cup final in three years
– The same year, with Smit at hooker, the Sharks lost the Super 12 final 36-6 to the Brumbies
– He played for South Africa against the Barbarians at the end of the 2000 tour and made his Barbarians debut against Australia in 2008
– After the infamous Kamp Staaldraad he was selected by coach Rudolf Straeuli for South Africa's RWC 2003 squad as the second choice hooker after Danie Coetzee. He came on as a replacement in the first two matches, then was appointed captain for the third match against Georgia - his first ever Test as Springbok captain
– In 2004, after Jake White became the South Africa coach, Smit was appointed captain
– In his first season he led the Springboks to a 2-0 series win over Ireland and the Tri Nations, the first major trophy for the Springboks since 1998
– In his 50th Test for the Springboks, he led the team to a 33-16 win against Wales in Cardiff
– In his 51st match against France in Paris, he was  yellow-carded for the first time in his career and subsequently suspended for six weeks for an accidental collision with French captain Jerome Thion
– In 2006, after five consecutive defeats which put the team and the management under huge pressure, Smit led the Springboks to a significant, morale-restoring win over the All Blacks in Rustenburg, followed by a 24-16 win against Australia at Ellis Park
– In 2007 the Sharks, captained by Smit, reached the Super 12 final, but lost 20-19 to the Bulls in Durban. Injured in the first Tri Nations match against Australia, Smit missed most of the season and returned in a RWC 2007 warm-up against Namibia, but was sidelined with injury again. He returned to full fitness in time for South Africa's first RWC 2007 match against Samoa
– South Africa, with Smit at the helm, defeated in succession Samoa, England, Tonga, USA, Fiji and Argentina to reach the final against England, whom they had defeated 36-0 in the pool match. Smit became the second Springbok captain after Francois Pienaar to lift the Webb Ellis Cup
– After the Rugby World Cup, Smit joined Clermont-Auvergne in France, where he stayed for only seven months
– He was bought out of his contract by the South African Rugby Union at the request of the new Springbok coach Peter de Villiers and, after a short while, he rejoined the Sharks with help from their coach John Plumtree. He played hooker initially for the province, although he had switched to tighthead prop for the Springboks
– Seriously injured in the first Test against New Zealand, he missed the rest of the 2008 Tri Nations
– He played for the Sharks though and sampled the delight of winning the Currie Cup for the first time in his career by defeating the Blue Bulls 14-9 at Kings Park
– He played his first Test at tighthead prop against Wales on the 2008 end-of-year tour and carried on playing in this position, although he returned briefly to hooker due to Bismarck du Plessis’ injury in Scotland
– Led South Africa to an historic 2-1 win over the 2009 British and Irish Lions and also the Tri Nations title
– He led South Africa in the 2010 Tri Nations, but they won only one of the six matches
– After four consecutive wins against Wales, Fiji, Namibia and Samoa at RWC 2011, he led the Springboks in their quarter-final defeat by Australia in Wellington
– He retired from international rugby after this defeat by Australia

South Africa appearances summary

Against Matches Tries Cons Pens DGs Points Won Drawn Lost
Wales 10 1 0 0 0 5 10 0 0
England 11 0 0 0 0 0 6 0 5
Scotland 4 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 0
Ireland 6 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 3
New Zealand 21 1 0 0 0 5 8 0 13
Australia 24 1 0 0 0 5 10 1 13
Argentina 4 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 0
Italy 4 1 0 0 0 5 4 0 0
France 9 1 0 0 0 5 3 1 5
Samoa 4 1 0 0 0 5 4 0 0
Fiji 2 1 0 0 0 5 2 0 0
Tonga 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 0
Canada 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0
USA 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0
B&I Lions
3 1 0 0 0 5 2 0 1
Namibia 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0
Uruguay 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0
Georgia 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0
Pacific Islanders
1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0
Total 111 8 0
40 69 2 40

Career records and highlights

– Played tighthead prop for South Africa Under 19 on their tour of Argentina in 1997
– He was the tighthead prop of the Natal Under 21 team that defeated the Golden Lions in the 1997 final
– His second match for the Sharks was as a replacement against the 1997 British & Irish Lions, the first of his four appearances against the tourists
– Captained the Sharks in 67 matches, the first of them against the Hurricanes in 2001
– He appeared in 61 Currie Cup matches for the Natal Sharks, scoring 12 tries
– He played 125 Super Rugby matches for Natal Sharks, scoring eight tries. His last Super Rugby match was against the Crusaders in 2011
– He played 19 games for Clermont-Auvergne between 2007 and 2008    
– He became the 50th captain of South Africa since Herbert Castens led the team for the first time in Port Elizabeth in 1891
– At the time of his induction he was the most capped player (111 selections) in South Africa’s history
– Of his 111 Tests, he played most Tests (24) against Australia - 12 in Australia, one in New Zealand and 11 in South Africa
– Test summary – of the 111 Test matches Smit played for South Africa, the Springboks won 69, drew two and lost 40. Smit scored eight Test tries
– He started in 94 of his 111 Tests – 80 at hooker and 14 at prop. He came on as a replacement on 17 occasions
– In 2008 he surpassed prop Os du Randt’s record as the most capped South African forward of all time and retained this mantle at the time of his retirement in 2011
– He played 17 matches across three Rugby World Cups in 2003, 2007 and 2011 – winning 13 and losing four
– By the time of his induction he had played once for the Barbarians, yet the following year he captained them against both England and Wales
– He played in 46 consecutive Tests between 2003 and 2007
– He captained South Africa a record 83 times, winning 54 Tests, losing 28 and drawing one
– In his second Test against New Zealand in the 2009 Tri Nations, his 60th as Springbok captain, he broke the world record of 59 Tests as captain, which was  previously held jointly by Will Carling of England and George Gregan of Australia,
– He captained South Africa to the 2009 Tri Nations title - with the Springboks winning Three tests in a row against New Zealand and Smit winning his first ever Test on New Zealand soil
– Won his 100th cap against New Zealand in Johannesburg in August 2010  

Additional notes

– Smit founded the Barney’s Army foundation, a charity aimed at providing bursaries to disadvantaged school learners
– He captained a World XV v Natal Sharks in a match to launch his charity, Barney’s Army, in Durban in June 2012
– Captained Saracens in a charity match against BGC APBs XV in Hong Kong in August 2012
– He wrote, with journalist Mike Greenway, his autobiography Captain in the Cauldron

What he said

“I was star-struck at every Sharks practice session. There I was training with players I’d hung pictures (of) on my cubicle door, so it was amazing just to be there. They soon accepted me, probably because I was so willing and respectful.”

“When I was a teenage apprentice at the Sharks, I knew nothing of the ways of the world. I was being educated by the senior guys.”

“I revered Gary (Teichmann) for how he captained the Sharks. I had captained a lot in my youth but Gary had unique attributes. As a leader he didn’t feel the need to say too much and he didn’t have to be in front of every camera. He did his job and everyone respected him. He had a massive influence on the team without even having to enforce it. He was just Gary.”

“As a player, Rudolf (Straeuli) was a happy-go-lucky bloke – he was fun, a prankster, a character who built team spirit. But as a coach he seemed afraid that the players would behave like he had, so he was very conservative. There were curfews, guards at the door taking notes of time when people came in, etc. This over-the-top discipline has the opposite effect, because it annoys players.”

“When you start out as a Springbok, it’s about proving you’re good enough to be there. But as you play more Tests, that feeling dissolves and you realise it’s not about you, it is about standing up to the responsibility of what this team means to a country like South Africa.”

“Many people would want me to talk about winning World Cups and Tri Nations series and British and Irish Lions series – and those have been spectacular moments – but the highlight has been seeing the power this team has developed to unite all South Africans.”

“To this day, I say to any coach or player that if me sitting on the bench or carrying tackle bags will give the team a better chance of winning, then I’ll do it.  It’s got nothing to do with my personal ambition, which is to be the best. But when it comes to a team, the only success I’ve ever gained is when I’ve put the team first and I have been good at what I do through that.”

“Pressure is like having butterflies in your stomach. The key for me was never to try and get rid of it, but rather to ensure they all fly in the same direction. That is what you get right when you win.”

“Unfortunately, the old-school mentality that a black coach can’t possibly be better than a white coach still lingers, but the positive from the situation is that the success Peter (de Villiers) has enjoyed can change attitudes. The success of our first black Springbok coach will hopefully take South Africa another big step down the road to full post-apartheid recovery because it’s now evident that the Boks can win under a black coach.”

What they said

Jake White (former South Africa coach): “My first, possibly most important decision (as far as I was concerned), was to name a captain. I had no doubt in my mind that John Smit was the man for the job, and I met with him during the Super 12 campaign. He’d led the Boks in the World Cup against Georgia (in 2003), had been an South Africa Under 19 and Under 21 skipper, and had captained the Sharks. He was the logical choice for the job. But more important than his obvious leadership credentials – I held him in high regards as a person. I still do.”

Ian McIntosh (former Natal and South Africa coach): “With you, (Smit) I always felt that it was a question of when, not if.”

Victor Matfield (former South Africa second row and teammate of Smit):“I remember John as a captain who always put the interest of the team above his own. I rate him as the best Bok ever.”

Bobby Skinstad (South Africa teammate): “John is the best captain I have seen and played under. There is a very special relationship between John and Jake.”

Rupert Bates (journalist, Daily Telegraph):“Smit has been pivotal to head coach Jake White’s ambitions with vast mutual respect and understanding.”

Mike Greenaway (author and journalist): “Smitty has been so successful in a team environment because there’s no pretension or ego about him. He is just a good bloke, plain and simple.”

Os du Randt (fellow Springbok prop): “John, you are a highly intelligent captain, an outstanding player and a loyal friend, which makes you tops in my world. What a privilege it was to scrum next to you, where a person’s fighting spirit comes to the fore. You have my respect and admiration and I’m grateful to Jake for giving me the opportunity of playing alongside you. You are worthy ambassador for the Game of rugby and your country.”

Victor Matfield (former South Africa second row and teammate): “In my 12 years of professional rugby, I’ve never encountered someone who has earned so much respect as player and captain from friend and foe alike.”

Percy Montgomery (former South Africa full back and teammate): “I’m proud to have worn the green and gold with John, I’m proud to have called him my captain and my teammate, but most of all, I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Mark Keohane (journalist and author of Champions of the World – Seven magnificent weeks): “Smit has the aura of Johnson and Fitzpatrick. He has the presence of Pienaar, but he does not have the arrogance you find in so many Test players.”