Pretoria – It has taken Juan Smith 28 “dark” months to return to the Springbok fold and he says he would play in any position to be in contention for next year's Rugby World Cup.
“I went through five operations which was tough, and every time you start with your rehab and you think you will get back into rugby only to go for another operation,” Smith said in Pretoria on Tuesday.
“Every operation was a dark moment for me and, eventually, after five operations, I finally called it a day. I think that was the darkest moment of my rugby career.”
It had been nearly four years since Smith last ran out in the green and gold, which was against England at Twickenham at the end of 2010.
A veteran of 69 Tests, he picked up an Achilles injury at the start of 2011 which excluded him from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
Three years and four operations later, Smith was forced to draw the curtain on a career that included a World Cup medal.
“The surgeon in Bloemfontein then asked me to give him a chance. At that stage, the operation wasn't for me to get back into rugby but for me to walk without pain,” Smith said.
“For 25 months, I would go to bed with pain and I would wake up with pain. After that last operation, everything went well and the morning after the operation I told my wife I had no pain and I was going to try again.”
Smith resurrected his career at French club Toulon, where he signed a one-year deal in September 2013 and was one of the standout players in a team brimming with international superstars.
Toulon went on to win the Heineken Cup and the French Top-14
title to hand Smith a dream comeback.
“It's been a long road for me recovering from my injury – after 28 months I made the announcement that I was finished with rugby.
“Going over to France ... was an awesome feeling and what better way to celebrate my comeback Ä to be picked for the Springboks again.
“It was amazing to make a comeback at Toulon, and the cherry on the cake was winning the Heineken Cup and Top14.”
Smith was highly rated world-wide and considered an influential player, not only for his ability but also for his leadership qualities.
After missing out on a Bok call-up earlier this year due to injury, Smith had finally been drafted by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to replace Victor Matfield, ruled out of this weekend's Rugby Championship opener against Argentina in Pretoria.
Although Smith had never represented South Africa as a lock at senior level, he said any position would suit him, if it got him to the world cup.
“Everything that happens to me now is a bonus. If I look back to a year ago, the only plan was to play rugby for 80 minutes,” he said.
“As I finished last season I set new goals, but I've always had the goal to play in three world cups. I missed out in 2011 with the Achilles injury so I hope to reach next year's world cup.
“You come to a stage in your career where, even if I have to play tighthead prop, I will give it a shot.” – Sapa