A desire to end his career on his terms is what drove Juan Smith, to step back, take time to heal, and make a return to the game. And now, more than three years after tearing his Achilles tendon, and two years out of the game, the 33-year-old is back in the Springbok squad.
Smith’s return to the Bok Test group has been described as “remarkable” by the man who helped nurse him back to fitness after suffering a career-ending injury against the Bulls in the opening game of the 2011 Super Rugby season.
“It’s been a remarkable recovery and to tell you the truth I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Dr Ian Morris yesterday. Morris was the team doctor of the Cheetahs when Smith picked up the injury.
Smith was yesterday drafted into the Bok squad for the Rugby Championship opener against Argentina in Pretoria next weekend following the knee cartilage injury suffered by fellow 2007 World Cup winner, Victor Matfield. Smith will join the team today after arriving from Toulon, in France, where he has been playing since late last year.
Morris said that while Smith called it quits in February last year after failing to recover from four operations, he feels the player never fully gave up hope of playing again. “We were all a bit impatient at the time. He wanted to play, to get back as quickly as possible, but it was a bad injury and what he needed was time,” said Morris.
“I think we were all a bit despondent about what was happening and it eventually got to the point where there was no option but to give the injury time to heal. I don’t think he ever gave up hope of playing again, though ... he was convinced he’d recover, he had the belief and I’m so happy for him that it’s worked out.”
Morris said the work done by Bloemfontein orthopedic surgeon Dr Johan Kruger was immense, but adds Smith deserves credit for staying strong through the ordeal. “He never sulked, he never moaned; he was a champion throughout. His commitment to get better was unbelievable.”
Smith comes into the Bok squad on the back of a good season with Toulon, one which saw them being crowned French Top 14 champions and Heineken Cup winners. He will not only be considered as a loose-forward, but also as a No5 lock.
“Our need at this stage is to draft in a player who can cover lock and loose forward, and we feel Juan is the right man for the job,” said Heyneke Meyer yesterday. “Juan has played lock before in his career and won an Under-21 World Cup in that position, but he also covers flank and No8. He’s comfortable playing in the second row again if the need arises. However, as a number of our loose forwards have had a very high work load this season, it’s good to have someone such as Juan who can also provide cover in those positions.”
Morris said it was unlikely Smith would be troubled by the Achilles again. “He’s got to look after himself, but it’s healed. If something was going to go wrong it would have happened already. He ticks all the boxes of being fully rehabilitated so he should be good to play for some time.”
Meanwhile, Jean de Villiers said yesterday he is “looking good for next weekend” after only recently returning from a knee injury, which ruled him out of the June Tests. “The injury’s improved a lot and fitness-wise I’m feeling good. It’s now just a matter of gaining confidence in the knee.” Should De Villiers prove he is fit he will be named captain. - The Star