Players Rally behind Beleaguered Captain John Smit

James MortimerAnalyst ISeptember 8, 2009

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 08: Peter de Villiers and John Smit during the Springboks training session at Southport School on September 08, 2009 in Queensland, Australia. (Photo by Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The Springboks front row famously caused havoc for the British and Irish Lions in the first Lions test. It has been under growing scrutiny after firm examinations from not only the Lions as the series progressed, but by the All Black and Wallaby scrum platforms.

The New Zealand front row, with Tony Woodcock regarded as one of the premier loosehead props in the game, has been consistently strong under Henry’s reign (but not so much as when Carl Hayman was anchor), but it has been the rise of the Australians in this regard that has caused the South Africans grief in recent tests.

While many Australian media outlets have been pinpointing Smit as a liability for the World Cup holdersbeing essentially a converted hookerthere must be no mistaking the Wallaby front row has evolved. In doing so making a mockery of the old mantra that scrumming is non-existent in the Australian rugby landscape.

If indeed Smit at tighthead is a liability for South Africa, it presents an extremely difficult conundrum for the team and their coach Peter De Villiers.

Many believe that a captain, irrespective of the sport, should be selected on merit of his being a good enough player for his respective position.

Smit, a World Cup winning captain, will challenge this cliché.

His leadership and the presence he brings to the team is unquestionable. It is almost unthinkable that the most capped captain in world rugby (63 tests) and most experienced South African forward ever (89 tests) is becoming a liability to his side.

But recent lopsided penalty counts have caused problems for South Africa. If the Wallabies' win in Brisbane is not an aberration, but indication that the Springboks may not be as far ahead of their opponents as previously thought, then a fallible scrum will need to be eradicated.

Springbok rake Bismarck Du Plessis, whose impressive performances, especially around the field in the loose, prompted Smits move to the side of the scrum, has come out in defence of his skipper.

"John has done very well on his own ball and the way he has made the transition has been phenomenal. Every week he is stepping up and we all need to work on things in the front row, I know personally that there are a lot of things I need to improve,” Du Plessis said.

"I definitely think the criticism of John is harsh. He's a phenomenal player and I've learnt a lot from him. You can't play 89 tests if you're a bad player."

And while there have been moments of weakness for the South African front row, Du Plessis was quick to point out that it has not been under siege throughout recent tests.

"They (the Wallabies) caught us once or twice on our own ball in Brisbane, but the week before we scored a try off first phase so that must have been a good scrum. And we turned over two of their scrums last weekend, the one right before half time when the referee gave us the scrum, but then immediately blew the half-time whistle," Du Plessis pointed out.

The Kwazulu Natal forward, now with 29 tests, is weary of the challenges facing his team coming up against the All Blacks.

"It's like the lineout, every different guy you're up against brings a different challenge, every week there's a new challenge. We will have to scrum differently to how we did against Australia, and one of the things we've worked on is the height of our scrum,” added Du Plessis.

"Tony Woodcock, who has played a lot of tests, Andrew Hore and Owen Franks, who we haven't played so much against, will be a totally different challenge. Their height and technique will definitely be different to the Wallabies."

Bakkies Botha, who famously said of his partnership with his prop, “You keep your back straight and I’ll do the rest,” has also come out in defence of his captain.

"I can't see a prop I'm pushing on not being able to scrum and I back my captain 100 percent," Botha said.

Personally, Botha though is more focused on resuming his hostilities with his rival All Black and Canterbury lock Brad Thorn.

"I hopes he's fresh this weekend. We talk after every test, we have a nice chat afterwards, it will be nice to see the old bugger again,” Botha said.

"We like to put pressure on each other, make it tough, and we will be hitting each other in the rucks and mauls. I look forward to it."

Arguably the most abrasive forward in world rugby, he looks forward to keeping the aggression that has trademarked his game.

""You don't see pain on people's bodies, you see it in their eyes. And when I see pain in an opponent's eyes, it makes me happy," Botha said.

No doubt, the All Blacks will be doing everything in their power to keep Botha from leaving Hamilton a happy man.