15 Oct John Smit
There have been some incredible upsets so far in this World Cup, including Japan’s historic victory over Ireland and Uruguay’s win over Fiji.
It’s always euphoric for the fans of the underdog as well as the neutrals, but former Bok skipper John Smit says they are ‘prickly’ situations to deal with as a player in the team everyone thinks ‘should’ win.
Smit says the difficulty of rotating a squad within short time frames at the tournament, as well as the passion and desire from lower-ranked teams creates an environment of stress for players which inevitably leads to mistakes.
“That’s what World Cups deliver,” says Smit. “Because you end up playing all the guys who are dirt-trackers and they get a chance, and if it doesn’t click, the pressure builds and all of a sudden it starts to become a bit of a chess match.
“It’s the perfect storm that a World Cup has the ability to produce.”
Smit led South Africa to their second world title in 2007, beating England 15-6 in the final in Paris. However, two weeks prior to that there was a wobble from Jake White’s side.
The English had upset a highly-fancied Wallabies outfit in their quarter-final in Marseille, after which the All Blacks lost to France in Cardiff – and the next day at Stade Velodrome, South Africa found themselves in a dog fight with Fiji.
The Boks were 20-6 ahead when Fiji scored twice in succession to make it a tied game with just a quarter of the game remaining.
“Those situations are prickly because you know that you’re doing everything wrong compared with what you planned to do, but to change it is a difficult thing,” says Smit.
“What’s required is a very strong leadership group. It requires a lot of people to be able to step back and look at it.
“It was very tight until 20 minutes to go and then we stuck to what we planned to do. We kept it quite tight and had a maul try and Butchie [Butch James] came around the corner to score another.
“It ended up being comfortable, but at 20-points-all with 20 minutes to go we were about to become the third big scalp of the quarter-finals.”
It wasn’t the first time South Africa survived a fright at that tournament. In their penultimate game of the group stages they were almost beaten by Tonga.
“People forget that if that ball had bounced from that kick at the end, left and inside, it could very well have been a different result,” says Smit. “That’s how tight it was.”
The kick Smit refers to was a dink ahead from the Tongans in the final play of the game; the ball bounced into touch just in front of the chasing Aisea Havili Kaufusi to bring down the curtain on a thrilling encounter.
Had it held up for the replacement he could have tied the game with a try (30-30) and left his kicker with a chance to win it. It was almost an historic win for the Tongans, but Smit’s team stayed unbeaten.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Springboks have a game against the tournament hosts in a game the Boks would normally be expected to win. However, Jamie Joseph’s side fully deserve their place at the top of Pool A after beating Ireland and Scotland and are becoming a side that troubles the best.
Smit says there was bound to be a surprise package in the quarters given how the gap between rugby’s traditional giants and the chasing pack has been closing in recent times.
“It was always going to be the most difficult World Cup to call, from a top-eight point of view and from a minnows point of view,” said the former hooker.
“We’ve seen far less 50, 60, 70, 80-pointers – we’ve seen a lot more competitiveness from even the nations who are not yet fully professional.”
When Japan take to the field against South Africa on Sunday they will be hoping to add an extra week to their dream World Cup run, but can they cause another upset against the team they famously beat in Brighton in 2015?
While the population of Japan – and the rest of the world – will be backing them to topple the Boks, South Africa will be hoping they aren’t the latest team to fall prey to the perfect storm.
Written by Keith Moore