Tuesday 20 February 2018

One Smal step for Ireland

World Cup winning coach believes green giants are as good as the Springboks

GERT SMAL looks directly at me. "I look at you and I don't get a full image, I only get this much," he says, motioning away a sizeable portion of my head with his hand.

While in this particular circumstance, the affliction could be viewed as something of a bonus, Smal's loss of vision in the bottom corner of his left eye was enough to force his retirement in 1993 and deny him a possible World Cup medal when South Africa raised the trophy on home soil two years later.

Standing 6'5" and broad as a barn, Smal is an imposing figure. And, despite possessing fingers the size of anything Denny's could produce, my hand is no match for the handshake of the Ireland forwards coach as we sit down to talk about his career, past and present.


He was a serious player, in every sense. Youtube Smal and you will see him in action for the Springboks against New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986. Kiwi tighthead Gary Knight is grappling with the giant backrow at the side of a ruck and Smal levels him.

As clocks go, this was Big Ben, a beautiful shot and Knight goes down like a sack of Kerr's Pinks. Not that we're condoning violence on the rugby pitch in these yellow card-sanitised days, but that punch is worth repeated viewings, particularly as it was effected on Knight -- a man not noted for his temerity.

That was one of only six caps the 46-year-old won for the Springboks as South Africa wallowed in sporting isolation. Four of those came against the unauthorised Cavaliers on that '86 tour and the other two against a World XV in 1989.

When South Africa were welcomed back into the fold in 1992, Smal was still only 31 and had realistic ambitions to a World Cup berth until injury struck.

"I got a bad knock in the mouth and lost my vision in the bottom corner of my left eye and I had to stop playing," he recalls.

"It was on an Australasian tour with Western Province against Queensland. Their scrumhalf came up quickly and I got a blow in the mouth from the back of his head.

"It's quite important in the line-outs, you need to see the full movement. I still wanted to play in the 1995 World Cup but I was forced to retire."


Smal had served as player/coach with Rovigo in Italy between 1986 and 1990 and after his retirement developed his coaching until he became head coach with the Border Bulldogs, Western Province (where he won two Currie Cups) and the Stormers.

Most impressively from an Ireland point of view, Smal was brought onto Jake White's coaching ticket in 2004 as forwards coach and helped the 'Boks to the Tri Nations in his first year and the World Cup last year.

Like White, his departure from South Africa was unusual considering the euphoria of France a few months previously. He approached the South African union and offered to help develop rugby in the Eastern Cape, the heart of black rugby in South Africa. Rather than receive their grateful acceptance, he was told he had not submitted his proposal in time. Baffling, but South Africa's loss is Ireland's gain and Smal refuses to look back in anger.

"First of all, I want to say I'm a proud South African," he states. "I'm not running away from my country. I always wanted to come and coach overseas. When I played overseas it meant a lot to me as an individual, and I want my kids to experience that over and above the opportunity it gives me. I've got a boy and girl and I wanted them to experience life outside South Africa."

The boy, Dean, is a 14-year-old enrolled in Blackrock's rugby nursery where he is a promising lock forward, although his dad notes that he is fond of tennis and swimming also. Smal and his family are happily, and aptly, installed a couple of miles away, adjacent to Lansdowne Road -- following a change of location necessitated by Dublin's traffic congestion problems.

"It's been brilliant. I love it. My family is happy, my kids are happy. My boy Dean is in Blackrock College. Before, it took me an hour and quarter to take him to school.

"I said I'm not going to waste that much time sitting in traffic in the morning, so we got a little apartment near Lansdowne Road, close to Lansdowne Road station so my boy can jump on the train (DART) and go to Blackrock."

And the job is going well also. Having worked with Springbok forwards of the quality of Schalk Burger, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, how do Paul O'Connell, John Hayes and the lads compare in terms of size and skills?

"Exactly the same -- there's nothing the 'Boks have that Ireland don't have. They've (Ireland) got the skill, have got the physique. It'll be nice to see how they handle it in a game situation," he says.

"Once teams start throwing certain things at you, you have to adapt to it. Once I see them in that pressure situation, then I'll start making adjustments.

"There is very much a freedom of coaching in the coaching set up. If you look at the different personalities and how we compliment each other, I'm very happy and it's a nice environment to work in.

"There are going to be times when we're going to challenge each other and I think that's healthy as long as it's done in a respectful way."

Speaking of respect, it could be argued that Ireland have shown their November 15 opponents too much respect, coming close to a first victory over New Zealand on several occasions, but never closing the deal. While his primary focus is understandably the Canadians, Smal has coached teams to victory over the All Blacks before, so how does he intend to get the Irish over their psychological hurdle?

"You must believe it, you must dream it, you must see it, you must feel it. And you must see yourself growing as an individual as well and it doesn't matter against which opposition you play, you see yourself growing over on top of opposition."

And Richie McCaw?

"You're not in awe of somebody, you respect him for who he is, but you don't live in awe of somebody else."

Turns out Smal's vision is pretty clear after all.

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