South Africa captain John Smit has no truck with the ‘f word’ — fatigue — as the rugby world champions eye a sixth straight win over England which they hope will kickstart a return to the top of the game.
Since beating England 15-6 in last year’s World Cup final in Paris, the Springboks have played 13 Tests, won nine and lost four.
Not a bad record by some standards but all four of those defeats came during a Tri-Nations which ended with South Africa propping up the table when that tournament ended in September.
It’s a position which England, their opponents at Twickenham this Saturday, understand after a far steeper tumble down the standings following their 2003 World Cup triumph.
But for Smit, second place in the International Rugby Board (IRB) rankings behind New Zealand is nowhere.
“Most critics would think ‘where do you go after winning the World Cup, there’s only one way?,” Smit, restored to his regular position of hooker following the hamstring injury sustained by Bismarck du Plessis during last weekend’s 14-10 win over Scotland, told reporters here Thursday.
“Considering the new coaching team that has come in and the pressure of playing under the world champion label, the biggest disappointment hasn’t come from the games we’ve played and should have won but possibly just losing the number one in the world tag.”
Saturday’s match will be the Springboks final Test of 2008 and earlier this week coach Peter de Villiers, who succeded World Cup mastermind Jake White, said they were suffering from mental fatigue.
They weren’t at their best in letting Wales back into the match before winning 20-15 and then going 10-0 behind against Scotland.
De Villiers rowed back from those remarks faster than Steve Redgrave and Smit said: “There’s a 1,000 excuses we can think of and we’ll give them to you on Saturday night, depending on what happens.
“All these guys play to win and know that to have one foot on the plane would mean they are going to give someone else an opportunity to take away their dream.”
Smit believes a win at Twickenham would also help lay down a useful marker ahead of South Africa’s next international, which isn’t until June 20 next year when they begin a three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions.
Du Plessis’s brother Jannie has been drafted in to fill the prop berth left vacant by Smit’s move across the front-row while flanker Danie Rossouw comes in at openside flanker in a back-row rejigged after Juan Smith’s concussion at Murrayfield.
England were beaten 28-14 by Australia at Twickenham last weekend, undone by a street-smart Wallaby pack. And while England’s 21-year-old outside-half Danny Cipriani showed glimpses of his talent, he couldn’t match the control of understated Wallaby stand-off Matt Giteau.
Comparing the dashing Cipriani with the man he’s replaced in the injury-prone Jonny Wilikinson, a superb goalkicker and outstanding defensive fly-half, is unfair.
But Smit didn’t need to be asked twice.
“We’re very glad Wilkinson is not playing. Those are hard boots to fill and having him on the injured list is to England’s disadvantage.”
England manager Martin Johnson, who recalled lock James Haskell in a bid to beef up his pack, had to make an enforced change Thursday when Tim Payne came in after prop Andrew Sheridan pulled out with a neck problem.
England: Delon Armitage; Paul Sackey, Jamie Noon, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye; Danny Cipriani, Danny Care; Nick Easter, Tom Rees, James Haskell; Tom Palmer, Steve Borthwick (capt); Phil Vickery, Lee Mears, Tim Payne
Replacements: Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Simon Shaw, Tom Croft, Jordan Crane, Harry Ellis, Toby Flood
South Africa: Conrad Jantjes; JP Pietersen, Adrian Jacobs, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana; Ruan Pienaar, Ricky Januarie; Pierre Spies, Danie Rossouw, Schalk Burger; Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha; Jannie du Plessis, John Smit (capt), Beast Mtawarira
Replacements: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Brian Mujati, Andries Bekker, Ryan Kankowski, Heinrich Brussow, Francois Steyn, Jaque Fourie
Referee: Nigel Owens (WAL)