Hugh Farrelly: Smal expectations
In his first interview since recovering from a career-threatening illness, Gert Smal tells Hugh Farrelly why he turned down the chance to coach South Africa and how Ireland can make history in New Zealand
GERT SMAL strides into the Ireland team hotel in Auckland looking the very picture of health.
Indeed, the giant South African looks fit enough to don the Springbok No 6 jersey he wore with distinction back in the 1980s and, given where he was three months ago -- trapped in a hospital bed wondering whether he would ever be able to return to full-time coaching -- that represents a remarkable turnaround.
The goal of taking on the world champions in their own lair acted as a significant spur in Smal's recovery and, less than a week away from the realisation of that dream, the Ireland forwards coach oozes energy and anticipation.
Irish rugby has reason to be grateful on two fronts: first that the 50-year-old has been able to return to his coaching in such excellent shape and, secondly, that he is doing so with Ireland and not his native South Africa.
Once Peter de Villiers' eccentric reign as Springbok coach ended after the World Cup, the rumour mill began seeking a replacement and Smal, assistant to Jake White when they claimed the 2007 World Cup, was high in every wish-list.
His contract with Ireland was not seen as a major barrier. This was one of the world's premier rugby nations coming in for one of their own -- the dream job for any South African coach. How could he turn them down? Very quickly, as it turned out.
"There was a lot of interest there but it just wasn't the right time," says Smal. "They approached me when I was back in South Africa to celebrate my 50th birthday (December 27). It was a tremendous honour to be approached, a great opportunity and a difficult choice as regards this being an exciting time for South African rugby
"But for me, my commitment to my family and to Irish rugby came first. I had a contract with Ireland, and then there was my family. I didn't want to move my family, my boy (Dean) is in his final year in Blackrock College. It's something I would definitely be interested in down the line but I'm very happy with the players here and there are things I still want to achieve with Ireland."
It was a hell of a statement of faith in Ireland but one that was almost immediately threatened.
The announcement came out of the blue. Ireland had just suffered an agonising opening-day defeat to their World Cup conquerors Wales in the Six Nations and at a routine press conference ahead of their meeting with Italy, it was announced that Smal would take no further part in the tournament and that Munster's Anthony Foley would coach the forwards in his stead.
Serious illness exacerbated an eye condition from his playing days and Smal was confined to hospital for five weeks, forced to watch Ireland's Six Nations unravel on TV. It was a difficult and dark time for Smal and his family but he drew tremendous strength from the hordes of well-wishers.
"It was a big knock, definitely, it wasn't easy," he recalls. "But the goodwill and support I got was outstanding; there was incredible warmth, typically Irish. I was very disappointed as well not to be involved in the Six Nations but Anthony did a very good job when he came in.
"But it's wonderful to be back with the players and coaching staff, thankfully it's behind me and I feel 100pc again."
Smal's return coincides with Ireland facing into their most challenging assignment in their 138-year history. No Irish side has ever attempted a three-Test series in New Zealand, least of all when the All Blacks are world champions and rugby's top-ranked side while Ireland cling desperately to eighth place.
Yet, rather than be intimidated, Smal is exhilarated by the task ahead.
"Yes, it is going to be extremely tough, but that is the beauty of Test rugby, you prepare as well as you can and put certain things in place to give yourselves a chance over 80 minutes and there is always a chance.
"There is no such thing as a weak All Blacks side as you can see from the depth coming through at the moment. We have to be on the money and know how to finish games but this is a great opportunity."
The widespread belief is that Ireland will be 'blackwashed' in the series, with New Zealand's 'Herald On Sunday' claiming that the Irish "can be easily suffocated at the set-piece and then mentally and physically collapse" -- a direct assault on Smal's forward turf and one that provokes a stern response.
"After the World Cup win over Australia, they will know what we can do," he says, simply. "We pride ourselves on our set-piece and it is up to us not to allow ourselves be suffocated."
The biggest issue in Irish rugby is why the national side cannot mirror the success of the provinces, a debate which encompasses foreign players, coaching styles and quality of opposition. Smal recognises the importance of the provinces but stresses the importance of having the national side as the standard-bearers of the game in Ireland.
"We are looking for more opportunities for Irish players all the time but I can understand where the provinces are coming from, they want to win competitions and do what is best for them.
"It is kind of a catch-22. You want players to win competitions and bring that confidence into the international set-up but, on the other hand, you need to have opportunities for players in all positions.
"The IRFU is working hard to get it right and the system has to look at developing players in all positions because it would be a sad day for any country if provincial rugby becomes more important than the national team, that is your flagship."
Smal is unswerving in his contention that Ireland can compete with New Zealand in terms of ability and power but he wants to see a culture develop where Irish youngsters aim high at an early age, just as they do in the southern hemisphere. "We need to have our players coming through sooner," he stresses. "In the southern hemisphere when you get to 23 -- and this is what I want to get across to young Irish players -- you must start asking the question: 'Am I going to make it internationally or not?'
"It is about not just being happy just playing for your provincial side. We need players coming through at an age when they can play for seven to 10 years, not just three or four. Like Peter O'Mahony, you don't just sit back and wait for David Wallace, Stephen Ferris and these guys, quality players, to move on, you start pushing at an early stage to put yourself in a position to play internationally for a long number of years. That is how I feel."
Speaking of belief and drive, does Smal genuinely feel Ireland can achieve their first win over the All Blacks in 107 years?
"I do not just want to talk a good game, we have to prove it, but the players believe they can do it, you have to at this level, and the coaches believe it. And, I really do not wish to sound selfish here, but personally I want this as much as any Irish player or supporter. I feel an overwhelming desire, without losing composure, to achieve this with and for Ireland, to do the country proud."
Belief and desire... if any man is qualified to speak on the subjects, it is Smal.