Before the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa , Brian Moore is sitting down with former players and coaches to discuss the memories that make the Lions the institution it is today.
First up was Sir Ian McGeechan . In the second installment, former Springbok captain John Smit reveals what it takes to beat the Lions – and the "legal warfare" that is the beating heart of South African rugby. An edited transcript of the podcast is below, or you can listen to the full episode here.
Brian Moore: We have gone on at length about why it is special to be a Lion. Is it special to still play against the Lions, even in this world of professionalism and the ubiquity of the World Cups?
John Smit: I think it has become more special. It is the last of the traditional ways of rugby. For us, it's every 12 years; there is something extremely special about being able to get your timing right, get your injuries right. It's much harder to play against the Lions than it is to make a World Cup.
BM: You played on two separate tours. We'll go into 2009 in more detail later, but let's go back to '97. You were a young pro then, 19, you played a small part in the tour but didn't play in a Test. What are your memories of that series?
JS: That was the first taste I ever had of professional rugby. I was in my second week in the premier team of the Natal Sharks at the time. I got a few minutes [against the Lions] and then Dai Young came up to me afterwards and wanted to swap jerseys. But I didn't know if I'd ever play for the Sharks again, and this was a one-off jersey which we were able to keep.
So I told him that I'd love to, but I really couldn't give it away. He was quite taken aback, and then Jason Leonard waltzed over 20 minutes later, handed me his jersey and wished me luck for my career. That is when I realised the significance and the uniqueness of rugby union as a sport.
BM: Let's move on to 2009. You're reigning world champions, but you are coming off the back of a mixed 2008. I read recently that you said you were more nervous for the first Test than you were for the World Cup final?
JS: There was so much riding on that first Test. It was a massively nervous time for me as an individual because of what had happened 12 years ago [when the Lions won in South Africa] and the fact that I was playing out of position. I had gone from being a hooker in the '07 World Cup to being the tighthead for the '09 series. Taking nothing away from Gethin [Jenkins], but when they announced the first Test team I was delighted that he was selected at loosehead because I could have thought of nothing worse than facing Andrew Sheridan.
BM: If my recollection is right, the scrum was vital. It seems that South Africa, above everyone else, are able to turn scrum domination into real points, into real domination around the field. Is that a constant technique? Is it a mindset? Is it right?
JS: The scrum is the last legal form of warfare in the modern game. There are cameras on everyone at every angle, so the scrum is the last place where you can actually get in the ring and smash a right hook and see what happens to the opponent. South Africans get a massive amount of confidence out of that warfare situation, as you well know. The scrum is one thing that allows you to get the first punch in. The game has never started until the first scrum comes, and if you win that first blow, it's a massive, massive confidence-gainer.
BM: So you've come off with a narrow win, you're going into the second Test. What's the message?
JS: Our approach was to start as fast as possible. We wanted to move everything, we wanted to get the ball through the hands, we wanted to go side to side; we wanted to just try and throw as much Super Rugby flavour at the game in the first 20 minutes as possible. But that was thrown off the track when Schalk Burger got sent off [shown a yellow card] in the first 30 seconds.
So we went from preparing the whole week to speed things up to slowing things down, playing for time, walking to line-outs, and then we just couldn't get out of that. That first 40 minutes was probably the hardest 40 I've had to manage as a captain. We got properly stuck in at half-time, in terms of getting us to wake up and stick to the plan and restart the Test match.
It was probably the most amazing, most intense Test match I've ever been a part of; a rollercoaster of momentum and emotions throughout that 80.
BM: When Ronan O'Gara decided to kick the ball right at the end, I remember distinctly saying afterwards: "Of all the things that he could have done, it was one thing he shouldn't have done." And, of course, the rest is history.
JS: You know what, Ronan owed us that one – it was, unfortunately, karma. He's such a good bloke, but when he took that sneaky tap in 2004 against us, you know!
BM: Oh, yeah. When you were all facing the line. That was a hell of a kick from Morne Steyn. People think it was a definite, but it wasn't, was it?
JS: I wasn't going to Morne to begin with, I was actually looking for Frans Steyn. And Morne came to me and said: "This is my hometown, I know I can make this." And he gave me a little wry smile; I was c—-ing myself inside, but I was so grateful I wasn't the guy who had to take the kick. But he stepped up and took the decision away from me and I said: "All yours mate."
BM: That's what you want, isn't it? Blame him later – he asked for it! You've won a Test series, you've got the revenge for '97. What's that feeling like?
JS: The last time we felt that good was in Paris, two years before. We stayed in a place called Castello Di Monte, just down the road from Loftus Versfeld, and they actually rented out the entire top area for us for beers and cigars. I think we needed it to vindicate what we'd done two years ago, because of the 2008 that we had and the fact that we got through a World Cup without beating the All Blacks – so there were demons hanging around.
BM: Sir Ian McGeechan told us how important he thought it was for the Lions to win the third Test so the touring side four years later inherited a winning jersey. Can you remember the feeling after the final whistle, when you'd lost; what sort of camaraderie, if any, was there between the teams?
JS: This was probably one of the things that I felt could have been better. We sent out an invite to the British and Irish Lions management weeks before they arrived to invite them into our changing room after every Test match to share a beer, and they sadly declined.
We didn't have an opportunity to make any friends. So the only relationships I've got with some of those players are the ones that I've made through internationals. It was almost as if they went out of their way to stay away from us for those three weeks, which was disappointing.
BM: Let's take this year's tour. Similar to '97, you are coming into the tour as reigning world champions, but you haven't played a game since the final in 2019. What is the anticipation like for the tour, the appetite for it, in South Africa at the moment?
JS: The appetite has been phenomenal since before we won the World Cup, two years ago. What to expect? No one has a clue. With South Africans, as you well know, common sense is probably the least of our qualities, so everyone expects it to be a resounding success. We've got a couple of challenges: our team hasn't played in two years, and it'll probably be the same squad that played two years ago. But the excitement here is phenomenal. But what a time to be a pundit – you can't be wrong because no one's got a clue what exactly is going to happen.
BM: As one of only a few people who has been allowed into a stadium, it is a weird sensation, and it is difficult sometimes to motivate yourself. And that will be interesting because all the home international players have played big Six Nations games in front of no crowds. It will be interesting to see in the first Test how South Africa cope with it, because it's not normal.
JS: It's difficult. I've been to a few games as a pundit and it's eerie, it's horrible. I could think of nothing worse than playing in front of absolutely nothing. And the other thing that would worry me, purely selfishly as a hooker, someone that's in charge of line-outs, is that the opposition hear every single thing you say. So you have to think about all your calls, about how you don't allow them to decode your line-out format – it's just so many more things for these players to be aware of than in our time.
BM: Who do you think are favourites?
JS: It's an old story, and Jake White always used to do this before every Test. But you've got to put down the starting XV that you think is going to play for the Lions and then put down your starting XV. And then you look and see which guys would be able to filter through both teams.
BM: That works sometimes. Did you ever hear the England story with Sir Clive Woodward about facing New Zealand. He said: "Look over this list – there's not one player I would swap." An attentive hand came up from the back and asked: "Can we swap Austin Healey for Jonah Lomu please?"
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