Smit and Botha: A battle in the midst of war

Sharks and Bulls matches have never been tame affairs. Instead they have been characterised by intense physicality, all-out aggression and plenty of attacking rugby.

 

Let’s hope that the tightness of a final does not tame these two wild beasts as they head into what is shaping to be the biggest domestic game in South African rugby history.

Both sides are loaded with Springbok stars and Springbok contenders and the winner of Saturday’s match will also have to be the winner of many small contests – scrums, lineouts, tackles and head-to-head clashes between opposing players.


We decided to take a look at this seething contest that will occur on Saturday and gain some crucial insight via the opinion of the experts. It is these head-to-head tussles that will make up the larger match that is set to be ‘The Battle of Durban’.


There are no two ways about it. In a rugby team you don’t have much if your fly-half and your hooker are outmuscled by their opponents and it is in these two positions where probably the two most intriguing battles will take place.


But first up we take a look at the tussle of the number two’s – and it is a match-up that has already in the past spilled over into wider controversy.


John Smit is the incumbent Springbok hooker and captain and while he has not always been the people’s choice, he has had the season of his life and there are very few people around who would say he should not re-collect his Bok jersey at the beginning of this year’s international season.


But it has often been disputed that Smit as a player is no match for the hardened and sharp play of Bulls Gary Botha. It is often forgotten that Botha actually began his career at the Sharks before making a name for himself in the renewed Bulls rampage of the last four years.


Contrast this with John Smit, who spent just about his whole youth in Bulls’ country and was head boy of that veritable flagship school of Blue country – Pretoria Boys’ High.


To understand the differences between these two players perhaps it is best to note that Botha is a former flank and John Smit a former prop and it is that that defines their approach to the role of hooker.


We turned to the experts to gain insight as to how the contest will pan out.


Former Springbok coach Nick Mallett handed John Smit his international debut in 2000, choosing to back the newly-converted prop. And Mallett has been impressed with Smit’s performance so far in 2007.


“This has been John’s best ever year in Super rugby. In fact both him and Gary have had great seasons.


“John is a hooker who concentrates on his first phase role – he performs the basics of hooker exceptionally well.


“In the past he has been found out defensively. He has been weak in his lateral speed and ability – in other words he defends like a prop. But I have noticed this year that he has slimmed down and that aspect of his game has improved.


“He has always been strong with the ball in hand.


“I would say that him and Gary are probably fairly even in terms of value to their sides but Botha perhaps will have a greater impact upon the game.


“Gary is very fit and explosive with great athletic ability. He is helped out by the fact that he has Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield in his pack but that said his scrummaging and lineout work is very good.


“There is not a lot between the two but what comes to the fore is John’s leadership ability and the influence on his team. That’s why he has the edge in terms of Springbok selection.


“He clearly has a good relationship with Jake [White, Springbok coach], and that’s always been the case for successful Springbok sides as with Francois Pienaar and Kitch Christie and Gary Teichmann and myself during our winning streak in 1998.


“Another intriguing aspect to the match is the clash of the captains

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