TRIBUTES poured in for former Springbok flank Juan Smith on Tuesday after news of his retirement late on Monday shocked the rugby establishment just a week after his comeback following a two-year, injury-enforced hiatus.
Smith, 32, officially declared time on his decorated career after aggravating the Achilles tendon injury that had incapacitated him since February 2011 in a friendly against the Bulls on Saturday.
It was only Smith’s second outing in two years following a 35-minute appearance against the Stormers last week. But after he consulted a specialist on Monday, it was clear the injury was too severe for him to consider playing again.
"It has been my privilege to play numerous Test matches alongside him over the better part of a decade," fellow Bok back-rower Schalk Burger said. "He is loyal, committed and epitomises all the best that Springbok rugby stands for.
"This is a sad day for all of us who played with and against him, and we are going to miss his presence on and off the field. I personally will miss the times we spent in the changing room before and after Test matches."
World Cup-winning coach Jake White also lauded Smith from Canberra, where he now coaches the Brumbies. "I coached Juan as an under-21 and with the Boks and he was a truly great player," White said. "It’s sad he’s had to retire like this because, had he played for the past two years, people would have finally recognised how valuable he was to South African rugby.
"Although he was nominated as South African Rugby Player of the Year twice, he never won the award, which I still find surprising.
"Within the team, he was massively respected and the opponents feared him and saw him as a real threat. Juan was the unsung hero of the World Cup in 2007 and never got the plaudits he deserved for his contribution to that successful campaign. Playing together with Schalk Burger, they were the best flank combination in the world, in my opinion.
"Now that I live in Australia and hear what people outside of South Africa think of Juan, I understand his value even more. No one here enjoyed playing against him."
Smith won both the junior and senior World Cups, played 69 Tests and scored 12 tries for the Springboks. He also represented the Cats and Cheetahs a combined 79 times in Super Rugby.
At 1.94m tall and always weighing about 110kg, Smith was perfectly suited to the role of blindside flank. He had great pace and anticipation, was a brilliant defender, a superb lineout operator and a wonderful ball-carrier.
Former Bok coach Rudolf Straeuli, who awarded Smith his first Test cap against Scotland at Kings Park in 2003, said: "He was the most committed player in the team and his contribution to Bok rugby hasn’t been fully appreciated.
"At the 2007 World Cup, his ability and influence at the back of the lineout rivalled that of Victor Matfield and it was one of the reasons the Boks were so successful."
South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said: "As one of the hard men of South African rugby, Juan distinguished himself as someone who always put the team first. He wasn’t someone who looked for glory, but knew what was needed to get the job done.
"We wish Juan all the best for his future and hope to still see him involved in rugby in some way. Thank you for your great service to rugby in South Africa in the past 10 years."
• Sharks No8 Ryan Kankowski will be rested for another week after his return from club commitments in Japan and will not play in this weekend’s final warm-up game for the Super 15 against the Pumas.
"We won’t play Ryan this Friday; we want him to have a week of weight-training to get his strength up 10%-15% for next week," coach John Plumtree said. "He’s obviously a very important player with Keegan (Daniel) out. So we want to get him back to top shape."