Smit was in conversation with former foe turned friend, ex-England and British & Irish Lions prop Jason Leonard, in the second edition of the South African Rugby Legends Association’s #RugbyUnites Webinar Series on Tuesday evening.
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Smit, who captained the Springboks in 83 of his 111 Tests and led them to a second Rugby World Cup title in France in 2007, says the legacy of the Lions, who only visit South African shores once every 12 years, makes them rivals unlike any other.
“The World Cup comes around every four years and if you’re lucky, you might play in one, maybe two, some three, four, five, but some of the greatest Springboks that have ever lived never got an opportunity to play against the Lions," said Smit, who serves on the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund Board of Trustees.
“That responsibility and hype added to what I found an extreme pressure."
The World Rugby Hall of Famer was a fresh-faced rookie when the Home Nations’ elite reigned supreme over the Springboks in 1997, winning the first Test 25-16 at DHL Newlands and sealing a series-clinching 18-15 victory at Jonsson Kings Park before the hosts picked up a 35-16 win in the third and final Test at Emirates Airline Park.
“I remember exactly where I was when [Matt] Dawson threw that dummy and went down the blind and scored to win the first Test in 1997. Jeremy Guscott’s [series-winning] drop kick [as well]. For 12 years, that’s what we relived,” said Smit.
The previous generation’s heartache at home stuck with Smit, who would be the one to lead the men in Green and Gold into battle 12 years later, with revenge on their mind.
“We were in a funny situation in 2009 because we were a World Cup-winning team that was two years older and a lot of the guys had scattered around a bit and signed overseas contracts.
“We’d all come together under Peter de Villiers and the motivation to stay together was because we had an opportunity to fix the 1997 result.”
Going into the all-important opening Test, Smit said he tried to play it cool but admitted to feeling unprecedented pressure.
“I remember being asked at a press conference the week before the first Test in Durban, ‘How does this [the hype] feel compared to the World Cup final?' I played it down from an answer point of view, but in reality, I don't think I’d ever been that nervous for a Test.
“A, because I was playing tighthead and we were told we’re going to be put under pressure from a scrum point of view and, b, if we didn’t come through with the goods, it would be 24 years [of agony].
“It’s quite a heavy feeling. I’ve never experienced nerves like that,” he said of the opening Test. As fate would have it, it was Smit – with the No 3 on his back – who scored the first points of the series as he barged over four minutes into the opening encounter.
“Scoring that first try was a very small step in the series being won,” he remarked.
Smit’s try gave the Springboks the edge they wanted as they went on to claim a 26-21 win. The following week, Morné Steyn slotted a last-gasp 52m penalty to secure a heart-stopping 28-25 series-clinching win.
The all-time classic at Loftus Versfeld also stands out for Smit. “I don't think I’ve ever played in a Test that physical, that competitive and that seesaw as I did in 2009 in Pretoria,” he said.
“It went down to the last kick of the game and obviously ended the series [from a competitive point of view]. I shudder to think what might have happened had that Test series gone one-all...I’m delighted it didn’t.
“The relief of that last kick going over felt very similar to the final whistle going in Paris in 2007.” The tourists won the third and final Test 28-9 in Johannesburg.
Twelve years prior, a 19-year-old Smit got his first taste of the Lions. Just one week after making his Sharks debut, the red-haired greenhorn came off the bench to mix it up with the Home Nations’ finest, who defeated the Durban side 42-12. This is where Smit and Leonard first crossed path - a special moment that is now part of Lions lore.
Dai Young, whom Smit had scrummed against, wanted to swap jerseys with him after the game, however, the rookie was eager to hold on to his Sharks jersey as it was his second appearance for the franchise.
“It was a good game. I remember coming off the bench. We won the game and were sitting in the change room afterwards having a couple of beers,” recalled Leonard, England’s most-capped international (114), a three-tour Lions legend and their current Chairman.
“Dai is a great guy, I’ve got a lot of time for him. Dai went on a Lions tour in ‘89 and then he went professional in rugby league and missed the tour in ‘93 to New Zealand, but he got another opportunity in ‘97 to South Africa.
“I saw Dai go off. In those days, you’ve got your shirt, shorts, socks, maybe a tracksuit top and bottom. You want to go and swap with as many people as possible if you can get your hands on stuff.
“In those days, it was just turning professional in that aspect. So it was still very much an amateur tour in that aspect. It was more about what you could beg, borrow and steal in a way.
“So, Dai went into your change room to try and get your kit,” he told Smit. “He came back in and was a bit miffed, to be honest. He came back in with his own kit; he didn’t offload it to you or any of the other boys. I asked him, ‘What’s the problem?’
“He said: ‘The young kid didn’t want to swap shirts.’ I said, ‘You do know he is a baby? This is literally his first start in his representative career, of course he isn’t going to swap. What do you care, Dai? You’ve got Lions kit coming out of your ears. You should be handing it out.’ It was in his head that you have to swap.
“So I just picked up my gear and walked next door, tapped on the door and [then-Sharks coach] Ian McIntosh opened the door. He is a lovely guy, but his eyes were going in different directions. He asked what the matter was. I asked to speak to the young kid.
“I do remember him barking your name and I have to say, that would have made me jump to attention as well. I just heard him shouting ‘Smitty! Smitty! Come here!’ You came to the door and you saw me with the kit and you were very polite.
“I did laugh because you actually called me Mr. Leonard. My father is always called Mr. Leonard, not me. You said, ‘Sorry, Mr. Leonard, but I can’t swap shirts because it is my first season playing.’
“Obviously you were a local boy as well, so it meant a lot to you. I said, ‘No, you have it wrong. I’ve not come here to swap. I’ve come here to give you my kit because you are obviously a very talented young player and you are going to be around for years. So, please, take this. I don’t want any of your kit. You played a great game, so here you go.’
“That’s what rugby is all about. That’s what touring is all about. We made a friendship about that and a few years later, you came a presented your shirt to me at Twickenham in 2001. I’ve still got that somewhere and have a lot of pride in that shirt. It’s a nice story, but it’s also what our game is all about.”
By Quintin van Jaarsveld