Juan Smith’s fightback from a career-threatening injury to again be in contention to play Test rugby is a lesson to younger players who’ve also had to battle setbacks, said Bok skipper Jean de Villiers on Thursday.
Smith has replaced Victor Matfield (knee injury) in the Bok squad for next weekend’s Rugby Championship clash at Loftus Versfeld and should he get a chance to play, he may force national boss Heyneke Meyer to rethink his plans for the remainder of the competition. A decision on Matfield will only be taken later.
But, with only 30 players permitted to be part of the squad, Matfield returning to fitness would necessitate one player dropping out of the squad. Meyer will be hoping he doesn’t have to make that call, especially if Smith replicates the kind of form he showed for French club Toulon against Argentina.
Asked his feelings about Smith returning to the Bok set-up after a three-year absence – which saw him retire from the game after struggling with an Achilles tendon injury – De Villiers was almost speechless. “What a story,” he said. “I remember him handing out the jerseys to us in Nelspruit last year and you could see his determination. He felt he still had a lot to give and that there was unfinished business,” said De Villiers yesterday.
The Bok skipper added that Smith’s drive to play top-flight rugby again was a lesson for the youngsters in the game. “It just shows what can be achieved through hard work, desire and commitment. A lot of people wrote him off, they said he’d never play again, but to see him come back is unbelievable. He’s a great player and a great guy and what a great story to tell.”
Smith will come into contention to play at lock as well as in the loose-trio next weekend, but even with all his experience and class, De Villiers knows the Boks will miss Matfield, who also only returned to the game this year after being in retirement for two seasons. “Losing Victor is a big knock. He’s a massive player.”
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