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Graham Jenkins
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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum
British & Irish Lions
Smit targets Lions payback
Graham Jenkins
November 26, 2008
John Smit of South Africa poses with a giant British and Irish Lions shirt during an Audience with HSBC British and Irish Lions Ambassadors Gareth Edwards and John Smit at the Millennium Stadium on November 25, 2008 in Cardiff, Wales.
Smit is hoping to be in the front line of the action when the Lions touch down in South Africa in 2009 © Getty Images
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South Africa captain John Smit is determined to avenge his country's 1997 series defeat to the British & Irish Lions when the two sides go head-to-head next year.

Fresh from leading his side to successive victories over Wales, Scotland and England on their end of year tour, the Springboks skipper wasted no time in setting his sights on the Lions who will take on South Africa in a three Test series next summer.

"It's a massive motivating factor for every South African," Smit told Scrum.com. "The past two Lions series have not meant much to us because we have only been able to recollect the series 12 years ago which we have had to deal with every day since then."

Smit got first hand experience of the 1997 Lions when as a fresh-faced 19-year-old he was thrown into action for Natal against the elite tourists. He has since established himself as one of the most highly-respected players in world rugby and has steered his country to both Tri-Nations and Rugby World Cup successes but that brush with the Lions remains clear in his memory.

"I was a young guy, trying to make his mark as a professional player, I was lucky in my second first-class game to pack down against Jason Leonard and he gave me his shirt, which I've still got, which was a very special moment.

"To think that I'm sitting in this chair thinking about actually doing it again 12 years later and for South Africa is even more special. It [1997] was a difficult series to lose due to the profile that a British Lions tour has in South Africa and also because of the importance and tradition associated with it. We treasure it back home due to the passion we have for the game. And to have the opportunity to play against them again next year has been the motivating factor to come back to South Africa so that I can be available for selection."

The Springboks can lay claim to an early victory in the psychological battle ahead of the tour by securing hard-fought victories at the Millennium Stadium (20-15), Murrayfield (14-10) and most emphatically at Twickenham (42-6) last weekend. Smit was pleased his side and coach Peter de Villiers were able to answer their critics in the best possible way.

"We came over here and realised quite quickly that the world champions' scalp was highly coveted," recalled Smit. "We had challenges in the first game where we lifted our foot of the gas at 20-3, and then going in ten points down at half-time at Murrayfield was another challenge we had to learn from. Thankfully the team came through and was able to deal with all that criticism and put in a good performance in our last game, at the end of our season, I think the boys can go home and put their feet up and feel good about it."

Smit, who featured at tighthead and hooker during Springboks' recent tour, had a front row view of many players hoping to board the plane for South Africa next summer and admitted a couple caught his eye.

 
"It is going to be the most wonderful rugby experience ... two of the most historic teams in an old-school three-Test series - even if I don't get selected or am not part of it, just to be in South Africa alone will be a gift!"
 
"I think the first guy is Wales' Andy Powell, he got man of the match with a powerful performance against us and he's kept on performing. He's one of the newcomers on the block and he'll have his hand up for sure. The tight five of the Welsh have always been competitive and there's experience there with guys who've already played for the Lions, and let's not discredit the best player in the world, Shane Williams, who's probably got his ticket booked already."

But Smit refused to accept that Wales will provide the bulk of the Lions side that lines up in the 1st Test at Kings Park in Durban on June 20.

"It's difficult to say right now, there's a number of players from all the teams, the English have got a lot of guys who have worn that red shirt before which you cannot discredit. I think this autumn series will be forgotten quite quickly once the Six Nations is here and people will get a clearer idea then of who the role players will be when it comes to the Lions tour."

Smit has had a mixed year personally with much of it blighted by injury but thinks that may well benefit him come 2009.

"I've been very fortunate over the last couple of seasons, I haven't played a hell of a lot of rugby this year with two injuries and have spent about four or five months on the couch, but I think it will stand me in good stead in the season or two to come. I've been lucky, when I have played I've played in a Top 14 final with Clermont, and lost that, and then in a Currie Cup Final with Sharks and won that, and obviously coming over here and being undefeated on our end of year tour is something that hasn't happened for a long time."

Smit admitted to being blown away by the prospect of tens of thousands of Lions fans descending on South Africa next summer but promised that a feast of rugby awaited anyone making the trip.

"It is going to be the most wonderful rugby experience, a four or five week tour with so many different towns in a wonderful country with a wonderful climate - two of the most historic and teams in an old-school three-Test series - even if I don't get selected or am not part of it, just to be in South Africa alone will be a gift!"

John Smit was speaking at an HSBC Lions event in Wales. HSBC is the Principal Partner of the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa next summer. For more information - www.lionsrugby.com

© Scrum.com
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