2015 Rugby World Cup
'Now I can get out of bed in one movement'
Tom Hamilton
September 16, 2014
© Getty Images

"I don't yearn for that feeling of running with the ball and making that big hit and the scrum... but I was fortunate."

It has been a year since John Smit swapped the intensity of the rugby field for the pressure of the boardroom. For the 16 years Smit played in the front-row, headaches were caused by repeated collisions in the scrum. Now, they are a mental strain as he prepares for his second year as chief executive of the Sharks. "It's been an incredible ride for the last 16 months," Smit told ESPN. "I've learnt a huge amount and I have been thrown into the deep end going from the Saracens bench to being in charge of South Africa's biggest franchise."

Smit's involvement in rugby has never been boring. His career took in spells at the Sharks, Clermont Auvergne and Saracens alongside 111 caps for South Africa, 83 as captain, and three World Cup campaigns.

His body, however, doesn't seem to miss playing. "Three months after retiring I could get out of bed in one movement, it was quite novel. And getting down the stairs, it is nice to walk down straight instead of sideways to get the Achilles waking up in the morning."

John Smit addresses the Sharks faithful, Kings Park, February 22, 2014
© Getty Images

Hark back to March 2013 and for all the world it looked like Smit was going to keep putting his body through the pain barrier. His time at Saracens was winding down and there was the lure of a two-year Indian summer on offer at Toulon. He had been persuaded to join by Bakkies Botha and had subsequently twisted Bryan Habana's arm to follow him to the Mediterranean coast. But then came the call from the Sharks, a sliding-doors moment. "About that Toulon thing..." Smit told Habana, "you're on your own".

Home is where the heart is for Smit, and despite the lure of one last hurrah at Toulon, he knew it was time "to cut it down". His last match was for Saracens against the South African Barbarians on May 16, 2013, and as it transpired, Smit did not need to worry about letting down Habana. The winger played an integral role in Toulon's double-winning triumph and instead of being part of their celebrations, Smit was watching on from Durban as his Sharks were preparing for the Super Rugby play-offs.

Silverware did not materialise for the Sharks in last year's competition, but Smit is happy with the on-field progression, now the challenge comes of getting "the business right and to get those arms all working correctly". He is on the other side of the fence when it comes to the lure of the Top 14. On October 20, 2007, Smit lifted the World Cup as captain of the Springboks. It was a triumph that marked the end of a chapter for Smit; prior to their campaign he signed an 18-month deal to join Clermont Auvergne. Moves from South Africa to France are two-a-penny now; back in 2007 they were less common. He was a pioneer, now he finds himself battling the tide.

"It's near-impossible [to keep players in South Africa]," Smit said. "I think we are almost 18 rand to the pound. It's made players far less patient about biding their time, doing the hard yards and going through the ranks.

"They now have other options like going to the PROD2 on a contract which is more than they'd be here. We can only hope and pray the French market gets saturated and they can't get any more teams."

He openly admits the Sharks cannot compete with the money on offer in Europe or Japan, instead "we need to offer different things". It is a statement straight out of the Saracens' phrasebook, a club who pride themselves on duty of care for their players.

"Their win was a hallmark moment for the country and the world. It gave them an idea of what South Africa was going to become."

Smit's career has taken in a myriad of different philosophies. On the field he identified with Jake White's credo to the extent he went through two coaches in his infant days as Sharks CEO - John Plumtree and Brendan Venter - only to then persuade his World Cup-winning coach to take charge. Away from the turf, it is Saracens who left the biggest impact on him.

"It has to be one of the most enjoyable rugby environments to be in, just the way they treat people - it's just incredible. A lot of the things I saw there I am trying to install here but not all of it will work. They are different cultures."

Different cultures, but the goal of winning remains the same. In 2007, Smit joined an elite club of people to have won the World Cup. Even with his boots flung into a dusty corner of his Durban home and his feet firmly under the desk he finds it hard to escape the triumph. Whatever career he forges in business, he will be synonymous with the night in Paris seven years ago.

John Smit celebrates with the World Cup, England v South Africa, Rugby World Cup final, Stade de France, October 20, 2007
© Getty Images

Only those who have won the World Cup can put naked palm to gold; for those mere mortals who transport the trophy around on the Land Rover Trophy Tour - something Smit took part in while it visited South Africa - they are required to wear gloves. On that tour he was joined by Chester Williams, the standard-bearer for South Africa's country-defining win in 1995.

"To be able to pick the trophy up and hold it is quite a privilege. It makes you think back to the seasons of sacrifice that took you on the journey to that win. The same goes for Chester. Their win was a hallmark moment for the country and the world. It gave them an idea of what South Africa was going to become. For Chester, it was an amazing story."

Smit's story started in 1997 as a substitute prop for the Natal Sharks against Western Province; it finished for Saracens in London in 2013. The Sharks are a fitting start to his life beyond professional rugby. There have been no regrets over retiring and he has channelled that will to win into his new post.

When the next World Cup ticks around in just over a year, he will no doubt reminisce with old friends about the time they won it. "Seeing that trophy brings back unbelievable memories," he says. "When I see that trophy I don't think about 2003 or 2011, I think about 2007".

However, as well as looking back with fondness, Smit has some concerns about the future. "When [former Springboks coach] Peter de Villiers wanted me to come back from Clermont, he said he wanted me to be captain but I couldn't do it over there so I needed to mentor those around me. I learnt from Gary Teichmann, Henry Honiball, André Joubert, Ollie le Roux and the others and I learnt from those guys how to conduct myself on and off the field and also as a rugby player. I worry who our youngsters are going to learn from."

That is a concern both for now and in the aftermath of the World Cup. When the first ball of the 2015 final is kicked in anger, he will be another face in the stands but he will be hoping to see Jean de Villiers join an elite group of triumphant captains.

"I think they can win it, it's a big call to say they will," Smit says of South Africa. "But more teams can than usual. England are contenders like New Zealand and Australia and then you never know which French side will arrive. There are far more teams that can win but it would be fantastic to be the first country to win it three times. That is the goal."

Chester Williams stands alongside John Smit © Getty Images

Land-Rover is proud to be a worldwide partner of Rugby World Cup 2015 and a presenting partner of the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour. Follow @LandRoverRugby on Twitter for exclusive video, imagery and insights from around the rugby world.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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