OLYMPIC MIDI OSCARS – Twenty-four hours before the 69th Olympic Midi Oscars ceremony, the eight world champion captains were invited to the Barrière-Le Fouquet’s hotel in Paris. Among them, John Smit, winner of the 2007 World Cup, spoke at length about his memories with some tantalizing anecdotes…
John, how have you been since your arrival in Paris this Friday?
The best ! Since Friday it’s just amazing, we were able to go see concerts and an opera so it was really great. I think the last time I spent so much time in Paris was in 2007 during the World Cup (laughs). It’s the first time in fifteen years that I’ve been back, I’ve played a few games with Saracens here but it wasn’t the same!
Why did you decide to come here for this big captains meeting?
This is such a special group of players! We are still talking about a collection of guys who have all managed to win the World Cup. When I received the invitation email I said to myself: “don’t be the only person to refuse (laughs)! “. And I also believe that the older you get, the more memories come back and it’s a way of recollecting memories from the past.
You notably discussed with Richie McCaw and Martin Johnson. Did you recall any match memories?
The most magnificent thing in these exchanges is that we talk about everything except rugby (laughs)! And even less of the matches in which we participated! We talk more about the World Cup in France which is coming, who are the favourites, the best players… The past is the past, today I believe that Martin, Richie or the other captains we are more big fans of current rugby only former players who rehash the past moments.
Despite everything, what memories emerge when you are reunited with these monsters of world rugby?
Coming back here, with all the world champion captains, obviously brings me back to Paris fifteen years ago! When we left South Africa for this long adventure in France. Obviously we wanted to lift the Webb-Ellis trophy but in this kind of competition, no one can predict the winner in advance. And Paris bewitched us! During the seven weeks we spent here, we really felt the love of the French… maybe it’s because we didn’t play against them (laughs)! And when we beat the English, I think that’s when the French fans appreciated us the most! In every city we went to, we really felt at home!
Now that you have been retired for nine years, what is your new life like?
I live the real life now, I have a real job! Immediately after my retirement I gravitated towards South African rugby for three years. Today I am the head of a cleaning and security company which is also a sponsor of the Durban Sharks and the Pretoria Bulls! I have no influence at all in South African rugby!
Do you miss rugby?
You know… There are some very specific things that I miss. The first of these is camaraderie. Being on tour with a group of guys for several weeks, sharing intense moments together… but I was very lucky in my playing career! I played from eighteen to thirty-five, and I loved my first game for the Sharks and my last for Saracens. When I look at the Springboks today, I’m not envious of their situation or I don’t say to myself: “damn, I would have liked to play one more match”. I’m really happy with the career I’ve had and I think it’s the best reward I’ve had in this sport.
Speaking of your long career, you have known two European clubs, Clermont then Saracens, what experience do you draw from these two passages?
My first experience in Clermont was a bit special! I had just won the World Cup with South Africa and I arrived in this new team like any rookie. And I really liked it. There’s one thing I learned coming to France and more particularly to Clermont: the people are really passionate, like in South Africa. I’ll give you an anecdote: I was eating in a restaurant in Clermont with Marius Joubert and there were lots of people waiting for us to finish to take pictures and sign autographs. I thought it was great, the respect the French supporters have for the game and the players is just incredible. At Saracens it was very different, I was at the end of my career, I was not starting a lot of meetings, but I was more in a role of mentor for young people. In England, rugby is secondary to football, which takes an impressive place.
More specifically, what do you remember from your short stint in Clermont (2007-2008)?
We had a great team at the time, I was impressed at all levels. The team was already used to playing the final stages and to being regularly in the last four. But the thing that stood out to me the most was this relentlessness in wanting to win the shield of Brennus. There was nothing else in the world. They have created a philosophy entirely focused on this title. I remember that we had won twice against Toulouse, at home and away, but we had lost the final. It really hurt us. And I still regret today not having stayed longer, given that I had signed three years but I had to play again for South Africa, especially since they finally won the Brennus in 2010. I I’m sorry for the fans for not being able to bring them this title before. I would have really liked to be part of this epic.
Now that you’ve been retired for almost ten years, what is your best career story?
Do you remember Jacques Fourie? We are one week away from our last group game and Jacque wanted to make this adventure fun. So he had the idea of putting a camera in a room where forwards usually take their best pancakes (laughs). He closed the room and hid behind a curtain to scare them and make a very funny video! But in the end, the first forward who opened the door was Juandré Smith. And when Jacque came out of hiding, Juandré punched him hard in the jaw and he couldn’t speak for a week (laughs). And this story, the coaches never knew it because we hid it from them! Unfortunately we no longer have the video!
What is your view of the France team and the Springboks?
I believe that both teams are serious contenders for the World Cup. France have made enormous progress for several years, and I think that this November test will be a crucial match for the World Cup. If both teams field their best team it will be a very important result to follow. They are the two favorites for the title but the sad part of this story is that they are in the same draw for the final stages. They will probably reunite at such times…it’s sad but that’s the game!
What is your opinion on the introduction of South African teams in the Champions Cup?
I am a big fan ! In the long term, I believe this is a great decision for South African franchises. Having played the European Cup, I can guarantee you that it is one of the biggest competitions in which I participated. You play against teams that are almost national selections on their own. This year, I believe that the South African teams will be in an adjustment phase. They are used to the United Rugby Championship but the Champions Cup is completely different. We must also think about the variable of geographical remoteness! It took me eleven hours to come to Paris from South Africa.
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Smit: “Juandré Smith hit Jacque Fourie because he scared him! »