TRIBUTES poured in for former Springbok flank Juan Smith yesterday after news of his retirement late on Monday shocked the rugby establishment just a week after he made a comeback following a two-year injury enforced hiatus.
Smith, 32, officially declared time on his decorated career after aggravating the same Achilles tendon injury that had incapacitated him since February 2011 in a friendly match against the Bulls on Saturday.
It was only Smith’s second outing in two years following a 35-minute appearance against the Stormers last week. But after seeing a specialist on Monday, it became clear that the injury was too severe to consider playing again.
“It has been my privilege to play numerous Test matches alongside him over the better part of a decade. He is loyal, committed and epitomises all the best that Springbok rugby stands for,” fellow Bok backrower Schalk Burger said.
“This is a sad day for all of us who played with and against him and we are going to miss his presence on and off the field. I personally will miss the times we spent in the changeroom before and after Test matches.”
2007 World Cup-winning coach, Jake White also lauded Smith from Canberra where he now coaches the Brumbies.
“I coached Juan as an U21 and with the Boks and he was a truly great player,” said White. “It’s sad he’s had to retire like this because had he played for the past two years people would have finally recognised how valuable he was to South African rugby.
“Although he was nominated as South African Rugby Player of the Year twice, he never won the award, which I still find surprising. Within the team, he was massively respected and the opponents feared him and saw him as a real threat.
“Juan was the unsung hero of the World Cup in 2007 and never got the plaudits he deserved for his contribution to that successful campaign. Playing together with Schalk Burger they were the best flank combination in the world, in my opinion.
“Now that I live in Australia and hear what people outside of SA think of Juan, I understand his value even more. No one here enjoyed playing against him.”
Smith won both the junior and senior World Cups, played 69 Tests and scored 12 tries for the Springboks and also represented the Cats and Cheetahs a combined 79 times in Super Rugby.
At 1.94m tall and always weighing around 110kg, Smith had great pace and anticipation, was a brilliant defender, a superb lineout operator and a wonderful ball-carrier. “Were it not for the fans and my family, then I probably would have made the decision to retire much earlier,” Smith told Volksblad newspaper. Former Bok coach Rudolf Straeuli, who awarded Smith his first Test cap against Scotland at Kings Park in 2003 added: “He was the most committed player in the team and his contribution to Bok rugby hasn’t been fully appreciated. At the 2007 World Cup his ability and influence at the back of the lineout rivalled that of Victor Matfield and it was one of the reasons the Boks were so successful.”
Straeuli, who is in charge of recruitment at the Sharks, said: “We tried to sign him at the Sharks at one stage but he was committed to the Cheetahs and loyalty was one of his biggest strengths.”
SA Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said: “As one of the hard men of South African rugby, Juan distinguished himself as someone that always put the team first. He wasn’t someone who looked for glory, but knew what was needed to get the job done.
“We wish Juan all the best for his future and hope to still see him involved in rugby in some way. Thank you for your great service to rugby in South Africa in the past 10 years.” Apart from his 69 Tests and two non-tests for South Africa, currently the 11th most by any Springbok, Smith also played in 41 matches for the Free State Cheetahs, 32 Super 12 matches for the Cats and 47 Super Rugby matches for the Cheetahs.