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The hard truth behind Juan Smith's return

Juan Smith's return to international rugby when he takes to the field to play Argentina in Salta will be a poignant moment. It'll tug on the heartstrings of the dyed-in-the-wool Bok fans who remember him rampaging in Green and Gold in his pomp, it'll provide those less familiar with a story to inspire, it could well raise the ire of those who feel others are more deserving but, as I'll point towards, it will also outline the remarkable run of luck that's given a Springbok icon and his family a second chance.

It's well documented now as the legend of Smith's comeback reverberates around the world that he retired from the game in early 2013. It wasn't a shock either, his troublesome Achilles tendon had finally caved and numerous surgical attempts by some of the most prominent specialists in the country had failed to reconstruct the tendon sufficiently for what was required to carry the load of one of world rugby's "big men".

Fed-up and completely disillusioned Smith packed it all in. A World champion, a Tri-Nations champion: the sport had given Smith a whole heap and while his premature retirement was met with sadness there was a general feeling that he'd made a name that would forever live in the annals of Bok rugby.

Rightly so but he was still in obvious discomfort when the Bloemfontein orthopaedic surgeon Johan Kruger offered him the chance not to play rugby again but merely to walk "pain-free" he had nothing to lose but to go for it.

The story from there on is now the stuff of legend.

In August 2013, EWN Sport, following up on a tip-off from France, established that he'd traveled to meet with officials from Toulon, who would, if he was able to pass a number of rigorous fitness tests and received sign-off from one of the world's foremost experts on Achilles tendon injuries, in Marseilles, offer him a pared back deal to make a return to the game.

It was a stunning revelation.

In brief, Smith signed a short-term deal with the club and not only managed to fulfill his place simply as a squad member but, alongside the likes of the some of the greatest names in the modern game, helped Toulon not only to the European title but, more importantly, capture the Bouclier de Brennus, being crowned as the club champions of France. It is something that Toulon have valued above all else since the arrival of their flamboyant owner Mourad Boudjellal.

Fast-forward to August 20, 2014 and Smith is named in the Springbok team to play Argentina in the Rugby Championship. Plaudits and tributes flood in from across the world and Smith, is, it would seem a player of universal popularity. Extraordinary.

But there's another aspect to this story that makes it even more remarkable.

When Smith runs out it'll be his 70th Test cap for his country and there'll be another Springbok watching from home almost more desperate for Smith to succeed than perhaps any other fan or pundit in this country.

CJ van der Linde, currently with the EP Kings is Smith's best friend, with him even naming his son after the Bok prop, and he knows just what it has taken for the former Cheetahs man to get back on to the field, saying it was the "best comeback that he's ever heard of".

It's a story littered with a determination and run of luck so completely of Smith's own making that it's a crucial lesson in life itself.

The reality is that following his initial retirement Smith was in a financially fraught position. A number of business opportunities hadn't worked out and despite still being contracted at the time his injury insurance had stopped paying out as a result of him having previously unsuccessful operations.

Dr. Kruger's offer of enabling him to be "pain-free" wasn't only Smith's opportunity to run and play with his kids but, privately, provided a chance to regain a handle on securing his own financial future once again.

Can you imagine Juan Smith crying? I can't and don't recall him ever have done so in public but I'm told that when hearing the verdict from the doctor in Marseilles that he would sign-off on a medical clearance allowing for Toulon to sign him that, understandably, real tears flowed.

That was simply the first step back into rugby after a number of people in the Cheetahs and PVM "family" had assisted him in slowly regaining some level of fitness.

Certainly he was cautious to state in public what hopes he had of making an actually return and when he spoke to EWN at OR Tambo International after his flight back from France all he would say was that he'd been to visit friends and have a look around.

Toulon deserve enormous credit for taking a chance on Smith where almost nobody else would, and despite their reputation of rather liberally throwing Euros to the wind, they took a largely pragmatic approach to him joining their ranks.

Besides the obvious dose of healthy PR his contract was largely lop-sided in that it was based on a number of incentives linked to minutes on the field. Every time Toulon progressed a round in the Heineken Cup, in which he played, it provided Smith a further cash injection to regain control of his and his family's own financial position.

While the winning of the Top 14 set off a windfall that saw him take from the sport what he deserved and provided him with a second chance of sorts.

As a result, did Smith perhaps play when he shouldn't have due to injury? That's almost a given but such was the drive and needs of the man that he was able to persevere and join the unique group having won a World Cup, a Tri-nations championship, the Heineken Cup and a Top 14 title.

So when Smith takes to the field whether you think he's there on merit or not, whether you feel that Teboho Mohoje deserved that spot, or didn't, perhaps take into account the resolve of the man wearing the Springbok number 7 jersey. There'll be nobody more motivated in the Springbok 23 than Juan "Yster" Smith.

Welcome back, what a story.

Jean Smyth is the Cape Town sports editor at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @JeanSmyth

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