Overpaid, Over the Hill and Over Here

News broke yesterday that South African captain and highveldt hero John Smit is on his way to Saracens.  A South African playing for Saracens, you ask?  Yes, we were surprised too.  It sounds like a coup, but Smit is 33 and Saracens already have a brilliant and dynamic hooker who can do this. Perhaps Smit will scrum down on the tighthead side, but he’s not nearly as effective there, which is a polite way of saying he is about as good a tighthead as Tom Court.

Importing veteran test legends from down under tends to be a mixed bag at the best of times. We have a look at three that worked, and three that didn’t.

The Good:

Doug Howlett, Munster: Arrived aged 28 after a glittering career with the All Blacks, and fitted in straight away.  About to embark on his fifth season with the club.  Now 32, and not as quick as he once was, but remains a first-rate footballer, and a fully commited one too.  His disallowed try in the 2008 HEC final would have been one of the tries of the era, while Munster fans won’t forget the sight of him hobbling back to make a try saving tackle on a Treviso player before departing the scene, unable to continue.
Verdict: Car-jumpingly good

Byron Kelleher, Toulouse: Sure, it may have ended unhappily, but for three seasons at Toulouse, Kelleher was sensational, winning the Top 14 Player of the Year in his first season (as well as the coveted Bouclier du Brennus) and winning a HEC medal in 2010.  His bristling, physical style was perfectly suited to the Northern hemisphere.  Next year he’ll be playing for Stade, who will be hoping that, at 34, he still has one last hurrah in him.
Verdict: So good Guy Noves almost forgave him…

Ollie le Roux, Leinster:  The Springbok prop had just one season at Leinster (and a cameo as a medical joker the following year) but he left a cult hero.  Not the slimmest, but he gave Leinster a platform at scrum time that they had never had, and was hugely influential on the budding Cian Healy, who would break through the following year. His ballast played a massive part in what was a crucial season in Leinster’s transition from perennial underacheievers to European force.  He even played hooker in occasional emergencies, and took a hard won Magners League medal back to South Africa,
Verdict: The Zaytoon bill was worth it

The Bad:

Christian Cullen, Munster: Brought in in to bring Munster from perennial European bridesmaids to the next level, Cullen was the first superstar to land on Irish soil. At the time, he was the record try scorer for New Zealand and it was anticipated his counter-attacking brilliance would turn a pedestrian Munster backline (you and I both know its true Hoggy) into one that could compete with Toulouse, Stade Francais and Leicester. Sadly, Cullen picked up a few knocks, and never quite got going. He managed just 44 appearances in 4 years, and 14 tries is a pretty poor return given he scored 46 in 58 games for NZ.
Verdict: Out-shone by Ian Dowling in his time in Thomond

Jerry Collins, Ospreys: Brought to Neath/Swansea/wherever the Ospreys call home the year after Rocky Elsom pitched up in D4, the idea was the same, to bring some Southern Hemisphere granite to a team of pretty backs, and translate Magners League success to the HEC. Rocky’s impact in one season has gone down in legend – almost single-handedly dragging Leinster into the quarter finals, then knocking Quin after Quin asunder when they got there – the man got into Team of the HEC in one campaign for God’s sake (much to Mad Dog Jones’ chagrin). Jerry’s was rather less noteworthy – in and out of the side, yo-yo-ing fitness levels, a lack of engagement, and a slapdash attitude, neatly summarized by this in his final game.
Verdict: Pint of Guinness?

Chris Latham, Worcester: When the star of the Wallaby RWC07 backline decided to move up North at the fag-end of a stunning career, presumably there were no shortage of suitors. We aren’t sure if HEC rugby was a make-or-break factor for Latham, but when he appeared at Worcester on a £325,000 a year 2-year contract, we were slightly suspicious he wasn’t in Europe for the top-level rugby. True enough, a couple of unspectacular seasons later and Latham is at home, and Worcester are £ridiculous lighter and still in the same place in the Premiership i.e. nowhere.
Verdict: Mad Dog rated him the finest full-back he has ever seen. Nuff said

Smit will always be seen in South Africa as the leader who, along with Matfield, Botha and du Preez, turned a callow and rudderless team into world champions and Lion tamers; but he is at best the 3rd best hooker in South Africa right now (Bismarck, Brits), and possibly 4th behind Gary Botha. We find it hard to envisage the ciurcumstances in which Smit isn’t slotting alongside Jerry and Chris this time next season.

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