Juan's battle to get back
FORGOTTEN Springbok Juan Smith has been battling adversity on two fronts: drought and injury.
One of the greatest blindside flankers ever to play in the green and gold, Smith ruptured an achilles tendon in the opening match of the 2011 season.
It took him nearly two years and four operations to reach a point where he could play again - and it nearly didn't even happen.
Eleven days before Christmas he had to stop training. The old injury was playing up again.
Then, less than 24 hours into the new year, he told his wife, Caroline, that he was going to give up rugby for good.
"After three weeks of brooding, I had given up," said Smith.
But the people around him had faith that the 32-year-old still had some rugby left in him.
"Neil du Plessis [the Cheetahs fitness coach] wouldn't hear of it," said Smith.
"He had an idea that if I wore slightly different boots and cut a hole in the heel where the pain and inflammation were occurring, maybe it would work."
"From then on, I started to ease back into training - with less and less pain. It's been amazing," he said.
The time out of rugby has been an emotional roller-coaster for Smith, with sharp ups and downs.
It wasn't just the injury. He was fighting to save his farm too.
A drought in the Free State had put added strain on Smith, who runs a sheep farm outside Bloemfontein that once belonged to his late father. It was like fighting two wars - one against the elements and the other against his own, rebellious, body.
But late last year he started running again, something he feared, in the darkest times, that he might never do again.
"I started running for the first time since the injury and by early December I started doing more sprints and hitting tackle bags," Smith says.
"When I began the rugby-specific drills I wore my normal rugby boots and suddenly I had a setback. Pain and inflammation in my left heel returned and I thought it was the end. I was at the end of my endurance and patience as well."
That was when he believed his rugby career was over for good.
Then it began to change for the better. The special boot worked - and the rains began to fall, breaking the drought.
The man with 69 Springbok Test caps, a World Cup winners' medal and 79 Super rugby caps found new inspiration.
Last week, Smith played 35 pain-free minutes in a Super 15 warm-up game for the Cheetahs against the Stormers and looked almost as good as the player he was between 2004-2010.
The problem with his achilles tendon is that it's not so much the rupture, but a small spur on the heel that is constantly agitated by rugby boots. This had led to swelling and severe pain.
But the boot, with its specially adapted heel, appears to be working. When he finally retires, will he consider having the irritating spur surgically repaired for good?
"There is no way I will have another operation," he says.
"If I go through one more operation I'm finished with rugby. I'll cope with it for another four or five years. I'll work around that bone."
For now, Smith is focused on regaining his old form, keeping his business running (he also owns a butchery in Bloemfontein) and putting himself out there.
For a man of the Free State soil, he had always been reluctant to leave Bloemfontein.
Now, if he can prove his fitness, he would be open to offers to play rugby overseas in the lucrative European leagues.
"I'd like to play for the Boks again but I need to get back on the field for the Cheetahs and return to the form that made me a Springbok in the past before I can contemplate international rugby again," Smith says.
"If I can make it through the entire Super rugby season, I can make a call about my future, because there might be opportunities overseas.
"I've grown as a person. I went through four operations and each one was a new low point. I had to start rehab after each surgery, which is not fun. But when I ran on to the field to play against the Stormers last weekend, the two years of sweat, pain and tears was worth the effort."
BOOT TO BOOST JUAN'S CAREER
The special boot that has been developed for Juan Smith is an Asics Gel Lethal Club 5. It is used for close-cut, hard surfaces by soccer and hockey players. Its design takes strain off the lower leg but it still needs some modification.
Smith has cut a hole about the size of a golf ball in the heel. It takes all the pressure off the bone spur that has been troubling him when he runs.
A wad of medical tape covers the hole to offer some protection. It's a makeshift solution, but the big man is convinced it can do a job for him and prolong his rugby career.
"Although these boots, unlike classic rugby boots, have small studs, I'm impressed with the grip, even on a wet field," he says.