Georgia has a special place in John Smit’s storied timeline.
It was against the Lelos, at Rugby World Cup 2003, that the front-rower led the Springboks for the first time, aged 25, an honour that was bestowed upon him on another 82 occasions.
And now, with Georgia about to embark on a historic two-test series against South Africa, the memories have come flooding back to the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee.
“I was literally only made the captain because Corne (Krige) was nursing a knock and they wanted to give Joost (van der Westhuizen) a rest at the time. They were the first two captains in the squad and I was the third but I never thought I would actually captain the side,” Smit told World Rugby.
“So the two big dogs had to sit down and I had to take the reins. Rudolf (Straeuli) had built a leadership group, there was Corne, Joost, Bob Skinstad and myself.
“Bob and I were tentative at the time because we had both had shoulder reconstructions and we were both going through a rehabilitation process.
“I was fortunate to get through mine but Bob re-injured his shoulder and he fell out of that group of four. I was always involved in the decision-making but it was still a surprise when Rudolf asked me to take the side.
“I did not realise the magnitude of it at the time but it was very a daunting experience when Rudolph told me.
“It is a massive thing in South Africa to be able to captain your side: once or a hundred times, it doesn’t make any difference,” he added.
“I was leading a young team and to be fair it was the core of the team that went on to win the World Cup four years later.”
Smit enjoyed a winning start as captain, with the Springboks beating Georgia 46-19, and the hooker turned prop boasted a 63 per cent win record as captain when he finally decided to call it a day two Rugby World Cup tournaments later, against Australia in 2011.
“I suppose the best possible way to start your captaincy is against what was then known as a tier two nation.
“We didn’t have a huge amount of footage of them, so we couldn’t really analyse them, but we did know they were renowned for their front-rowers as you’d see them popping up in every French Top 14 side.
“We knew we’d be up against an onslaught upfront and we’d have to weather the storm there to get some points on the board.
“It is a bit of a blur because of the emotional rollercoaster of captaining for the first time. But it certainly wasn’t an easy test match.”
A familiar challenge
Smit, now a TV rugby pundit, believes that the current Georgia team will present similar challenges when they take on the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld on Friday.
“Georgia have certainly improved as a rugby nation, you can see the amount of effort and investment they put into the game, but I think their core strengths remain the same; they are tough and like to scrum and take pride in the fact they are not going to let a tier-one nation run over them.
“You know what to expect when you play against the likes of Georgia, which is probably the reason why Rassie (Erasmus, Springbok DoR) and Jacques (Nienaber, head coach) wanted to play against them.
“We are so undercooked from a Springbok point of view, he doesn’t need anyone to stretch us playing-wise, I think he needs someone to stretch us from a physicality point of view and there’s none better than Georgia to do that. I hope they provide a massive challenge for the boys.”
Due to the lack of game time, Smit is fearful that the Springboks won’t be able to repeat the 2-1 win he and his peers enjoyed in the last Lions series on South African soil in 2009.
“Two games, I don’t care who you are playing, I just don’t think it is enough,” he stated, emphatically.
“If you compare the game time and intensity our guys here in South Africa will have experienced versus what the boys in the north have experienced, I think we’ll be undercooked.
“I do think this (Georgia) will help a little bit but we’ll have to dig deep because the lack of match readiness will be our biggest disadvantage.”
Gigantic series awaits
Smit started all three tests of the 2009 series at prop and scored in the opening win in Durban.
Like captaining his country for the first time and lifting the Webb Ellis Cup as the triumphant Springboks skipper at Rugby World Cup 2007, it is something he’ll never forget.
“It’s probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. That three-match series was something you cannot compare to anything, not to a World Cup, it is something so unique.
“Our boys were up against it in 2009, it was on a knife-edge all the time, and the difference was one kick in the dying moments of the second test, which could have gone either way.
“This three-test series is only going to have the rugby to make it memorable and leave some kind of legacy because there won’t be fans, there won’t be interaction, there won’t be the mixing together and forming friendships and bonds, but I think the rugby will be gigantic.
“The responsibility on both sides is so huge that the intensity will always come shining through.”