Sunday 18 August 2019

Cape Town-based Smal still reflects fondly on glorious days in Ireland set-up

Gert Smal. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Gert Smal. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Coaching is a funny business that can take your life on all sorts of different paths.

Before 2008, Gert Smal had little connection with Ireland but he saw a vacancy with Munster and applied for the gig.

Declan Kidney spotted his CV and, having moved from the province to the Ireland job that summer, hired the widely-respected forwards coach to his ticket.

Now, almost a decade on, Smal is back in Cape Town managing the powerful Western Cape region, but his son Dean and daughter Tammy have remained in Dublin.

In 2013, Joe Schmidt and the IRFU decided that Smal's time with Ireland was over, but he still visits regularly and was here last December.

Leaving was difficult, but he has no regrets and reflects on the period - in which Ireland won a Grand Slam in his first year and beat Australia at the 2011 World Cup - fondly.

"Five years in coaching is a good time and also you look for your next challenges," Smal says.

"At the time it was quite challenging, in fact I didn't expect to get the Ireland job because I actually applied for the Munster job. But then they didn't have a forwards coach, so I got involved with Ireland, which was the right decision for me.

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"I see myself as very lucky, things worked out well for me and also for my kids.

"I had them in primary school here in Cape Town, but then in high school and university in Ireland so it was good.

"Ja, you miss them, but hopefully it's for the better."

Inevitably, his fondest memory of his time with Ireland was the 2009 Grand Slam and the outpouring of joy that went with it.

And he puts much of the success down to Kidney and the international back-room team he assembled.

"Declan Kidney was outstanding, a great individual man-manager. He knew exactly what was needed for Ireland at the time," Smal reflects.

"You have all of those different nationalities, all bringing their own strengths.

"It was great, winning the Grand Slam, the Six Nations, the Triple Crown in one year was very special.

"There was so many good things. What I like about the Irish is their warmth, their sense of humour, work ethic. I really had some great times there."

Although the World Cup bidding war is perhaps driving a wedge between the Irish and South African unions, the introduction of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings to the Guinness PRO14 has opened up new links between the countries.

Smal attended Leinster's training session in Cape Town when they visited in between their two fixtures in September and facilitated a meeting between Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck and Leo Cullen during their stay.

As head of the biggest region in South African rugby, overseeing the Western Province from the Stormers down, Smal sees vast potential in the pivot northwards for a professional game struggling to cope in the face of European money.

"It's quite exciting. I think it might move in that direction," he said.

"It's easy to travel. Travelling to New Zealand and Australia is not easy. Jet-lag takes a massive toll.

"I think it's going to happen more and more, I don't know what's happening behind the scenes, these are my thoughts.

"I don't want to mess up what other people are organising, but personally I think it's quite exciting.

"We are going through a difficult time in South African rugby, financially and in general.

"All unions are struggling, that's why it is so difficult to keep the players.

"I just heard some talk on television about there being 200 or so South African players in Europe... some of those are key players who would make a massive difference (to the Springboks).

"We don't bring in players from the outside like in New Zealand. In Auckland there is about 200,000 Tongans, Fijians, Samoans."

"One thing that stands out to me is the quality of systems and coaches that they have in New Zealand and also in Ireland. Ireland is well organised, Ireland is doing things right."

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