The former South Africa captain tells Jon Cardinelli why the Boks went into the 2009 series angry
John Smit on facing the British & Irish Lions
John Smit will go down as one of the most decorated leaders in the history of the game. The versatile front-row forward led the Springboks in 83 of his 111 Tests. Between 2004 and 2009, the Boks won the World Cup, two Tri-Nations titles and a series against the British & Irish Lions. Furthermore, they were named the IRB Team of the Year in 2004 and 2009.
Smit faced many challenges over the course of his 11-year Test career, both as a captain and as a player. Looking back now, the affable 42-year-old tells Rugby World why the three-match series against the Lions in 2009 was his toughest assignment – on and off the pitch…
John Smit on facing the British & Irish Lions
“We were in a good space going into that series,” Smit remembers. “2008 was a year of transition after winning the World Cup in 2007, but we finished the season strongly to beat Wales, Scotland and England. By the early stages of 2009 we had welcomed a few of our top players back from serious injury.”
There was no shortage of motivation for the South Africans. Jeremy Guscott kicked a drop-goal to win the series for the Lions in 1997. For 12 years, the Boks had to live with the fact that the Lions had one over them. When 2009 rolled round, Smit and company had the opportunity to flip the script.
South Africa used what was said in the British media to inspire two wins in Durban and Pretoria – and ultimately a 2-1 series victory.
“You just can’t compare a Lions tour to a World Cup, or a game against the Lions to a Test against one of the home nations,” says Smit. “There’s so much more on the line and you can sense the change of atmosphere in how their media go about things.
“The British reporters saw that I was shifting from hooker to tighthead and they wrote us off. They thought that the first Test would be a doddle for the Lions.
“So it’s fair to say that we were angry before that game – and the worst thing you can do is anger a South African side before a big clash at home. I expect we will see more of the same in 2021, and all I can say is, long may it continue!
“Back in 2009, they were throwing missiles… They were making wild statements and promises. It was relentless, but in the end it was a good thing for South Africa. I owe the British media a debt of gratitude for the manner in which they motivated our team in 2009. Those statements and accusations only served to fire us up.”
That’s not to say that the Boks weren’t tested over the course of the series, or that the mental fortitude that defined the South African side of that era wasn’t scrutinised.
After claiming a convincing win at Kings Park, the Boks were ambushed by a far more ferocious Lions side at Loftus Versfeld. The tourists led 10-0 after ten minutes, and at that stage looked to be on course for a series-levelling win.
“Everything changed in that second Test,” recalls Smit. “After a bad start, we knew we were in for the fight of our lives. That was probably one of the toughest games of my career.”
Smit explains how the Boks turned things around to win 28-25. Having experienced similar challenges in games staged over the preceding four years, the leaders in the team refused to panic.
“That mental edge was built in 2004 and sharpened in subsequent years,” says Smit. “In 2006, we were really tested mentally. The team was under pressure having lost five in a row. The media was coming at us and trying to tear us apart.
“We stuck together and finished the year with our heads held high. That’s when I started to think we had the mental strength to go all the way at the 2007 World Cup.”
The Boks battled in the early stages of the 2008 Tri-Nations. After losing several matches, they adjusted their approach before heading into the all-important series against the Lions in 2009.
“That mental toughness grew and grew,” says Smit. “We became a team that enjoyed the tough situations, that relished the arm wrestles and close finishes. Where other teams did everything to avoid those situations, we did everything we could to drag them into it.
“In the second Test against the Lions, however, it was the opposition that put us under pressure. I often use the phrase ‘Going into the dark room’… It means you are being forced out of your comfort zone.
“Your opponent is forcing you into a tight space and you don’t know how to react. You think you don’t have the answers. You can see and feel everything happening, and you feel like you can’t do anything to get out of it.”
Having played together for five years, however, that Bok team learnt how to handle those situations and how to come out on top.
“I compare it to being out of breath,” explains Smit. “I took my son for a run recently and by the end of it he was blowing hard. He started to panic because he didn’t understand what was happening.
“I told him to breathe. I had been in that situation before, so I knew that it would pass.
“Once you understand that, you can react and make crucial decisions. You can think clearly despite the pressure.”
Smit is quick to credit the Bok coaches as well as the leadership group for the support they lent him during that series. The likes of Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers and Juan Smith are just some of the senior players who stood tall.
“We had six or seven outstanding leaders, some of them franchise captains. Peter de Villiers (coach) was inclusive in terms of the planning and strategy sessions. We built a strong culture.”
It’s nearly 12 years later, and Siya Kolisi’s Boks have the chance to replicate the feats of the Smit’s charges – namely the World Cup and Lions series double. Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan last year and is expected to lead the Boks in 2021.
“That 2021 Lions series is like an oasis in the distance,” says Smit. South Africa was subjected to one of the strictest lockdowns and the country’s domestic tournament only restarted in October – behind closed doors.
“I’m sure that most people, like me, are looking forward to putting on the face paint and having a beer in the stands while the Boks lock horns with the Lions.
“It’s not that far away now, and it feels like the excitement levels are escalating.”
John Smit’s South Africa travel tips for Lions fans
“You can tick the Big Five box pretty easily, no matter where you are in South Africa,” the former Bok captain says with regard to viewing leopards, rhinos, lions, elephants and buffaloes at game reserves around the country.
“As someone who loves his mountain-biking, I would advise tourists to try a safari on a bike. Take a two- or three-day tour of the bush with a guide. Learn how to track. Learn about our animals, such as the rhino. Get involved on the conservation side of things.”
Another suggestion from Smit is to drive between Cape Town and Johannesburg ahead of the third Test of the series. A stop on the east coast, where Smit played much of his club rugby with the Sharks, is a must.
“One of my best experiences was free-diving with sharks just south of Durbs. This country has so much to offer, and I suppose the real challenge is fitting everything in over the space of a few weeks,” he says.
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