Smit notches a century

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JOHANNESBURG, August 20- When a Springbok is about to become only the second to reach the 100-cap mark, firm hand shakes and back pats from supporters and positive media coverage are surely in order.But as 32-year-old hooker John William Smit prepares to complete a century of appearances in the green and gold Saturday at Soccer City against the All Blacks, the public and commentators are sharply divided about his merits.

Not that criticism will trouble a man born in the northern city of Pietersburg, educated at Pretoria Boys High School, first capped 10 years ago and Bok skipper since a mid-2004 Bloemfontein triumph over Ireland.

And why should it as he is the most successful skipper of a team that means so much to so many in a country where rugby union, cricket and football dominate the sports landscape?

He led South Africa to their second Rugby World Cup title in Paris three years ago, two of three Tri-Nations titles and a 2009 series success over the British and Irish Lions.

Not bad for a hooker-cum-tighthead prop-cum-loosehead prop some Bok fans consider lucky to be in the starting XV never mind captaining a side that will draw 90,000 spectators to Soweto despite three consecutive losses.

The anti-Smit alliance claims he is overweight, off form, and wearing the No 2 jersey only because Coastal Sharks team-mate Bismarck du Plessis is not ready for Test combat after injuring his neck three months ago.

His ‘fan club’ boasts about his successes as captain, the fact that he is the most capped national team skipper in rugby union history and just three caps behind Bok record holder Percy Montgomery.

Given the level of criticism, South Africa conditioning coach Neels Liebel went public this week and defended Smit against claims he was lagging behind the Tri-Nations pace.

"If you look at data of the distance and pace at which John has been running, he is right up there and in line with what we expected," Liebel stressed.

"There has also been concern about his weight, but it is exactly the same as the last two or three years and so is his fat percentage. So we are not worried at all."

Even his lineout throws stir debate with one Australasian commentator branding them "average" while Bok lock and vice-captain Victor Matfield considers them "spot on for six years".

Montgomery is part of the South Africa backroom staff and has little time for Smit bashers: "It is all bullshit but it is part of the game. Being criticised brings out the true character in a person."

All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu has no doubt what centurion Smit will bring to Soccer City: "It adds meaning to the game and they (Springboks) are going to be up for this one."

Under fire as a leader and player is a scenario Smit knows well with he and ex-coach Jake White facing the axe in 2006 if they did not beat the All Blacks at home. The Boks prevailed by a point and became world champions a year later.

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