Opinion / 10 March 2019, 1:00pm / clinton van der berg
John Smit is soaked in the realities of rugby professionalism, but a part of him yearns for the sweet and unsophisticated days of being a club man.
It’s a long time since he wore the jerseys of Maritzburg Varsity and Durban Crusaders, mucking in with players like Jaco van der Westhuyzen and Shaun Sowerby, but his memories remind him that there once was a simpler, perhaps even better, way of embracing the sport.
“It was character-forming. Rugby was a jol then, with no pressure,” he wistfully recalled this past week. “Now it’s as if players are robots endlessly monitored by social media.”
At Crusaders, one ritual was for the new guys to sprint naked from the tryline to the halfway line in the dark.
The lights would then flick on and it would be a scramble to retrieve your clothes to protect your modesty.
“Real rugby is so serious now,” says the Springbok great, who was captained at varsity by a 30-year-old farmer named Gary Fyvie, brother of Wayne. It was a reality that grounded Smit.
No-one took it too seriously because it wasn’t meant to be serious.
Conversely, at the very top, the game faces an existential crisis. The professional season is too long, the international calendar is messy and player welfare isn’t what it ought to be.
South African club rugby has had its issues, but it remains vibrant and community oriented, a striking counterpoint to the troubles faced by the professional game.
In his new life as a businessman, having had several staging posts along the way, including a stint at Sharks HQ, Smit has come full circle.
He is now acting CEO of SSG Holdings, a security services company that has landed the naming rights for the Gold Cup, with two associate sponsors also on board.
It means he’s loosely back in club rugby, ensuring the business’ money is well spent. He’ll also walk the sidelines, absorbing the ebb and flow of the club game.
Money is the lifeblood of contemporary sport and SSG’s cash is expected to boost club rugby with the already successful Gold Cup being the rallying point.
This year’s edition kicked off yesterday with games played the length and breadth of South Africa.
In its short life - it began in 2013 as the Community Cup and was re-branded Gold Cup in 2016 - the championship has enjoyed remarkable success, giving non-university teams a compelling raison d’etre.
The rugby is seldom less than high quality with community support a common feature, as we saw in Oudtshoorn last year when 13 000 people squeezed in to watch Bridgton play Progress.
It’s a sad reality of the pro game that players have largely become disconnected from fans, but in club rugby the converse is true. Amateur players live and work in their communities, so the bond is real.
There are big plans for the Gold Cup to grow and evolve, but for now the emphasis is on reaffirming its place in the rugby firmament.
The game is under financial pressure, but it’s encouraging to see that SA clubs can still attract sponsors and supporters, drawn as they are to the camaraderie and gees so central to the DNA of club rugby.
Their drive to remain relevant might even offer lessons for the big-money teams who have come adrift from their core bases.