Rugby: Botha backs Smit to captain the Boks as starting hooker

By Mike Greenaway

It was an inadvertent slip of the tongue by dear old Bakkies, but you can accept it as gospel - John Smit will captain the Boks and be the starting hooker at the World Cup.

It ends conjecture that Bismarck du Plessis' form had forced out Smit.

The 120kg Botha answered with an open heart about how senior players felt about the controversy over Smit.

"John is the best captain I have ever played under and he will lead us out against Wales on Sunday, and no player in our squad doubts that this is the right thing for the team," the 31-year-old said.

"Every one of us has a specific role to play, Bismarck, John ... all of us. We know what the right dynamic is for this squad to succeed, and it is a pity that others have seen it differently and given John such a hard time."

The veteran lock could miss defending champion South Africa's first Pool D match against Wales on Sunday with an Achilles tendon injury. A Springboks team spokesman said Botha had a chronic form of tendonitis, and while his recovery was being managed, he might not be fit enough to play Wales.

Backrower Pierre Spies told a news conference yesterday that Botha would be missed, but his likely replacement, Danie Rossouw, plays a similar style and South Africa will not have to change its game plan.

"Bakkies, in his unique way, is someone you always miss when he cannot play. He is a heck of a player," Spies said. "But injuries happen ... We are very lucky to have Danie on standby - he is also an exceptional player.

"We will see how the week turns out and hopefully Bakkies can recover in time.

"It won't change the way we play, if Danie comes in," Spies continued. "They are very similar players and we will stick to the same plan."

Botha's presence - and his direct approach - will be crucial as the campaign goes on. You know where you stand with Bakkies. He is no spin doctor."

The 74-cap veteran said the senior players had done their best to support the beleaguered Smit.

"It has not been easy for him, and the way he has dealt with it has resulted in us discovering even greater respect for him," he said.

"John has risen above the criticism, and it is amazing to us that he is able to keep it at arm's length and keeps grinding away at his job of lifting his teammates.

"John is not in it for himself - he is in it for the Springboks. People outside our circle do not realise the difference he makes. All the time he is boosting players around him.

"He is the best leader we have. My admiration for him after all these years continues to grow," Botha said.

Smit has said he is relieved to have left behind in South Africa the negativity surrounding him, and Botha likewise says that the Boks are pleased to be free of the sideshows.

"There is a heck of a lot going on in the build-up to an event as huge as this and while you appreciate it all, you are itching to get away so that you can focus on what matters most - beating the team in front of you, and this week that is Wales, and we have seen in their warm-up games that they are going to be difficult to beat."

The Welsh played two games against England, losing the first and winning the second, before thumping Argentina in Cardiff just over a week ago.

Their coach, Warren Gatland, has said the Boks are ripe for the picking.

"We have heard that they are confident, but what coaches say in the media is irrelevant," Botha said.

"We don't listen to that stuff. We have heard that our game plan is out of date, but it is water off a duck's back. We know what has worked for us over the last couple of years."

- Independent (SA)

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