Smal wonder he's just happy to be back and raring to go
Gert Smal: 'It was very frustrating and very disappointing not to be involved in the rest of the Six Nations but now to be back into it again is great.'
After last year’s health scare, the forwards coach has never looked better, writes GERRY THORNLEY
After the health scare which ended his involvement midway through last season’s Six Nations, thankfully Gert Smal has never looked better.
He talks of losing another 8kg to get down to his “fighting weight”, ie his playing weight, and having missed out on a competition he clearly has come to adore, Smal is in “bring it on” mode.
Just under a year ago, after the postponed match in Paris, Smal suffered a serious eye condition which prevented him from having any further input into the rest of the Six Nations. The episode was, he admits, a huge shock to himself and his family.
“Massively. But we all got through it and it’s made us much stronger. It was a big knock,” he says. “But I’m good and feeling good and working on my health and am really excited to be involved in the Six Nations.
“It was very frustrating and very disappointing not to be involved in the rest of the Six Nations but now to be back into it again is great, because the Six Nations is a special tournament.
“I always say this to South Africans because in the Southern Hemisphere they don’t realise what a great competition it really is. I think it’s a different type of game, at different times of the year as well, but what’s nice about it is the intensity, the pressure, and the supporters can go from one country to another quite quickly and just make a weekend of it.
“ In South Africa it’s very difficult to go to Australia or New Zealand.”
Along with the variety that comes with six different competing nations, Smal says: “Every point is important so you have to work for every point that you want.”
Only four of the Grand Slam starting team in Cardiff from Smal’s first campaign, in 2009, and only Jamie Heaslip of the pack, will line up at kick-off today, along with Rory Best (a replacement that day), while Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan O’Gara are on the bench.
As when he first came here, though, he says this process has also been quite special. “I think one must be very careful of saying that these players have a lot of energy now because they’re younger, which is true, that is normal, but with old hands, they’re a little bit more composed, a bit more knowledgeable. It’s different to see it and it’s lovely to coach both, the sort of old and new era.”
Looking further down the track, he mentions Robbie Henshaw, Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson and David Kilcoyne, and then recalls seeing Tommy O’Donnell in a training session earlier this season in Cork and thinking “there’s something there”.
Coming from a country which has both more strength in depth and produces innately bigger players was part of the challenge Smal initially wanted to embrace, and nothing has changed. Ireland have to be smarter technically and tactically. “So many things go into that and there’s two things I want to say about Irish players. They’re smart players and they’ve got a very good work ethic. They’re very determined and when the chips are down, they can change it completely.”
There has been pain along the way, not least last summer. He likens the challenge of going to New Zealand to David against Goliath, the addition of a third Test, unfortunately, only adding to the task.
“The first one was not a good one. The second one, we knew we were in with a chance, and the third one as well, but it didn’t materialise on the day.