The South African Rugby Union on Tuesday paid a final tribute to Springbok captain John Smit and vice-captain Victor Matfield, following their retirement from international rugby.
John Smit arrived in England on Tuesday morning to take up a two-year contract with the London-based Saracens club, while Victor Matfield has announced his retirement from all rugby.
He will make one final appearance for the Barbarians against Australia at Twickenham in November.
Smit departed as the most capped Springbok test player of all time (111 tests), and holds the world record for the most tests as captain, having led the team on 83 occasions.
Matfield played 110 tests for the Boks, but including his four midweek matches, he pulled on the Springbok jersey 114 times – more than any other player. He also captained the Boks 17 times.
The pair’s Springbok careers spanned more than a decade – Smit made his debut in 2000 and Matfield a year later.
The South African Rugby Union chose the moment of Smit’s departure to pay tribute to these two giants of Springbok rugby.
“We have been privileged to have witnessed the careers of two undoubted legends of Springbok rugby in the past decade,” said Oregan Hoskins, Saru president.
“They stood out as players from the day they first pulled on the Springbok jersey and over the years have been central to many of the most memorable occasions in the era of professional rugby. John provided outstanding leadership of the team throughout what have occasionally been turbulent times, while Victor was always a tower of strength – both literally and figuratively.
“They leave behind a model for discipline, leadership and professionalism of which they should be very proud.”
Smit said that the highlight of his 12-season Springbok career was being part of the nation-building force that he believes the Springboks have become.
“When you start out as a Springbok it’s about proving that you’re good enough to be there,” he said.
“But as you play more tests that feeling dissolves and you realise it’s not about you, it’s about standing up to the responsibility of what this team means to a country like South Africa.
“That’s my biggest highlight and what I’m most proud of. Many people would want me to talk about winning World Cups and Tri-Nations series and British & Irish Lions series – and those have been spectacular moments – but the highlight has been seeing the power that this team has developed to unite all South Africans.
“When I started playing for the Springboks it wasn’t a uniting factor and the change has been amazing. People of all shapes and sizes and all cultures and languages have embraced this Springbok team. That has been an amazing experience and I’m grateful to have been part of that.”
Smit described teammate and friend Victor Matfield as the greatest Springbok of all time following this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Matfield’s 11-season test career saw him establish himself as arguably the greatest lock of his generation, while he was a commanding presence in domestic rugby, captaining the Bulls to three Vodacom Super Rugby titles.
Matfield said his time in the Springbok jersey had been nothing short of amazing and even though there were some less memorable moments, the bulk of his time in the Green and Gold will be remembered as some of the most special times in his career.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had such a blessed Springbok career,” he said. “Together with wonderful teammates and under great coaches, we’ve achieved quite a lot over the years.
“Like John said, as the years went by we realised that we have a massive role to play in making South Africa the great country it is and it’s these moments that I will never forget. Games come and go and so too titles and trophies, but memories are forever and to be part of a band of brothers that made history and made our fellow South Africans proud, is something I will cherish forever.
“It has been an unbelievable experience being part of building our great nation and bringing people closer to each other.”