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Jake: Juan a legend without reward

Wed, 13 Feb 2013 06:15
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It was never about himself, it was always about the team
Quote-end

He may be rated as a legend by his peers and even some pundits, but retired Springbok loose forward Juan Smith was never paid the real homage he deserves.

This is the view of World Cup-winning former Bok coach Jake White, following the news that the 31-year-old Bok flank, Smith, was forced to retire on medical advice.

Smith played in 69 Tests for his country, was part of White's World Cup-winning squad in 2007, won the Tri-Nations (2009) and was a member of the Bok squad that overcame the British & Irish Lions in 2009.

In 2002, Smith was one of the stars of the South African Under-21 team that won the IRB Junior World Championship on home soil - also with White as coach.

"It is sad that he never got the recognition he deserved," White told this website in an exclusive interview.

"The best years of his career were about to come when he broke down [with the ruptured Achilles in February 2011]," the former Bok mentor and now Brumbies coach said.

"I feel he was on the verge of becoming the respected legend that everybody expected him to become.

"I am saying that, because we knew what he was worth to us in the [Bok] team.

"I don't think he ever got those accolades from the media.

"Whenever the Player of the Year awards were handed out, he was not even nominated in the top six or seven players, which I thought was quite odd."

Although quiet and unassuming by nature, Smith was one of South Africa's most consistent forwards in his seven-year tenure as a Bok loose forward.

"He did his work and he did it well," White said, when asked about Smith's approach to the game.

"He was highly respected by his opponents and his teammates. It wasn't because he wasn't flashy, it was his personality - it was never about himself, it was always about the team.

"That is a massive trait.

"If you ask anybody, the reality is that he was the most loyal guy. He never left the Free State, even after being offered millions and millions to go to other franchises. That just sums him up.

"I have said it many times, I am just amazed that in all the time he played he was never nominated as Player of the Year.

"I'm not saying he should have won it, but he could have.

"The reality is that he wasn't even nominated."

White said that Smith has many fine attributes, with his powerful ball-carrying ability and an impressive hand-off near the top.

"Everybody talks about how strong his hand-off was when he basically ran down the touchline and kept people away from him - that was his trademark," the former Bok coach said.

"Other than the fact that he also had a physical presence and gave his teammates a lot of confidence, I just enjoyed the fact of how he understood the line-out.

"In many ways that is what South Africa have lacked, a clever guy at the back of the line-out.

"He could really put opposition under pressure the way he read it.

"We always talk about Victor [Matfield], and he was phenomenal, and he had Bakkies [Botha].

"However, let us never underestimate how much ball we won at the back and how much ball we stopped opposition from winning at the back when Juan was standing second last in the line-out."

Asked if he felt Smith would make a good coach, White said: "I have known him since Under-21 days and I have no doubt that he has an unbelievable passion for rugby.

"He understands what rugby has done for him and what it meant for him from the time when [legendary former Shimlas coach] Tat Botha fetched him from the nightclubs and I think that kind of lesson he can teach [other] players.

"The love of rugby is something he can share with all the players that cross his path - be that a coaching role, a mentoring role or an administrators role at the university.

"I have no doubt the lessons he has learnt and the values he has as a player are massively important for the next generation."

By Jan de Koning

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