When one starts to think of some of South Africa’s most prominent tennis players, they may come up with familiar names such as Kevin Anderson, Amanda Coetzer and Wayne Ferreira. If one is from a younger generation, they could be more interested in the up and coming Siphosothando and Khololwam Montsi, and John Smit. Wait, John Smit? The World Cup winning Springbok captain? Yeah…but not quite.

He would only play tennis socially from there… he grew physically into a giant of 115 kg in his matric year!

Smit’s ex first team rugby coach Jannie Biddulph

Smit, besides being the most capped Springbok of all time, he also has to go down as one of the most influential as well inspirational captains the country has ever produced. So much so, that his captaincy culminated in a 2007 World Cup triumph, under the tutelage of new Vodacom Blue Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White.

But before Smit could even begin dreaming of standing at a World Cup podium with the much coveted Webb Ellis trophy in his hands, in Paris, France, the only podium he was dreaming about standing on was the one of the prestigious Wimbledon Tennis tournament some 6903 km away.

Growing up, Smit dreamed of being a tennis player, a sport he excelled in at Fields Primary in Rustenburg, and when he moved to Pretoria Boys High for his high school, he would’ve expected his tennis talents to be further enhanced, but unfortunately for him, but fortunately for South African rugby, the universe had other ideas, speaking exclusively to Grit Sports, Smit’s ex first team rugby coach Jannie Biddulph reveals how it all changed.

“John was accepted as a boarder at Pretoria Boys High, he came in on a tennis scholarship but quickly fell in love with the game of rugby” he said. “Boys High had a particularly healthy decade of rugby in the 90’s of which John ultimately became a part of, but as a junior he just got swept away by the passion for rugby like all the other boarders and day scholars did.”.  

Biddulph credits the regular playing of alley cricket and touch rugby by the hostel boys in their spare time, for the commendable hands Smit showed for a front rower even at test level.

Biddulph then recalls the final nail on his tennis career aspirations, “ He only played tennis for  one year, then as he made the first team direct from the u15A side, he would only play tennis socially from there onwards and never represented the school in the sport, he grew physically into a giant of 115 kg in his matric year. We used his immense power as a scrummager and ball carrier to good effect to wear the opposition down and he scored many tries in the number three jersey”

Biddulph fondly reminisces , a number three jersey he would go on to play 13 times in for the Springboks as a double up to his natural position as a hooker. “He was noticed by the Bulls Craven Week side selectors and made the team as captain and went on to be selected for SA Schools that same year. He was also a brilliant headboy of the school in 1996 and the 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph was a massive influence on John the scholar” Biddulph concluded.

The rest as they say is history, much publicized history in the case of Smit, as he would move to the Sharks after high school and enjoy an illustrious career in Durban, becoming a stalwart at the union. He would also play in three world cups during his time in the green and gold jersey, ironically becoming the next Springbok captain to lift one since the 1995 triumph that inspired him. Fortunately for us, we know now how great a rugby career Smit had, but in terms of him and his tennis career, he might, unfortunately be left with the bitter taste