Ton-up Smit very 'special'
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By Jacques van der Westhuyzen
On Saturday, at around 5pm, John Smit will run on to the field at FNB Stadium in front of 90 000 delirious rugby fans to earn his 100th Test cap.
It will be an emotion-filled moment for the Springbok skipper and certainly one of the highlights of what has been a glittering career.
Smit's had many highs since making his debut 10 years ago, but also a good few lows. He's led his team to magnificent victories, but also suffered embarrassing defeats.
He's also had to continually prove himself to countless detractors who over the years have labelled him "not the best hooker", "not the best prop" and "not deserving to be in the team".
Yet he's survived four Bok coaches - Nick Mallett, Harry Viljoen, Rudolf Straeuli, Jake White - and is serving under a fifth, Peter de Villiers - and is still, seemingly, adamant about leading the Boks at the World Cup next year.
Several of Smit's teammates, and a good number of the All Blacks, paid tribute to the Bok captain this week - and many more are set to do so in the coming days. But the most telling tribute came from none other than a man he'll be up against in the front row at FNB on Saturday: little-known young tighthead prop Ben Franks.
The stocky All Blacks prop, who'll earn only his seventh cap on Saturday, this week described Smit's career as "remarkable". He said it made no sense to him why Smit was so often in the firing line.
"I started out as a loosehead prop and now pack down at tighthead, and making that switch was one of the hardest things I've done in rugby," said Franks.
"It's tough changing positions and John has done that three times ... he's gone from loosehead to hooker to tighthead, and is now back at hooker. I don't think anyone realises just how difficult that is.
"And in all the positions he's played in he's done well, stood his ground at scrum-time and dominated opponents. That's not easy to do.
"The fact he's always been picked as a first choice in three positions is proof of what a remarkable player he is. And to do that over 100 Tests ..."
Franks, who has replaced his brother Owen in the All Blacks starting team, gave a good example of the difficulties associated with changing positions in the front row. "It's like if you're right-handed and try throw equally well with your left hand ... it's virtually impossible. That's the difference between loosehead, tighthead and hooker."
Smit's deputy in the Bok team, Victor Matfield, said of his captain: "He's a very special player; the best captain this country has had.
"There's a lot of respect for him in the squad and all over the world and hopefully we can make it a special day in Soweto. It's going to be a big day for many reasons.
"We've got a job to do, however, and that's to win and only then can we celebrate with John."
Juan Smith, who'll play his first Test of the season this week after missing the overseas leg of the competition, has played all his Tests under Smit.
"He's been my captain since 2004 and it's an honour to be part of him getting to the 100. It's unbelievable what he's gone through, but his character and leadership qualities have always stayed the same.
"It'll be a while yet before we see a captain of his quality leading the team."
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw also paid tribute to the Bok leader. "It's been a phenomenal effort. I have huge respect for him. He's put in a lot of effort and he's reaped the rewards."
Smit will address the media for the first time this week at a news conference on Friday.