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.
“You can’t put your finger on exactly what went wrong. Is it tiredness, or something else? I still think that everything that we did was spot on. We had the players off their feet for as much as possible. We did everything to the ‘t’ to ensure that they were fresh for the Saturday and that we were well prepared for what we wanted to do.
“But on the day, it just didn’t happen for us. The same as what happened to Argentina against us. A lot of people will say that in the Argentinian game, they weren’t really there. They were tired. I don’t know.”
Smal thought of that third Test most days during the summer. “And nights,” he adds. “Sometimes when you go through experiences like that you wake up in the middle of the night and you get a sort of a cold sweat, because international Tests are all about pressure, and so it’s a high-pressure job.
“But I always believe that if you don’t do it somebody else will always do it, so take it on the chin, you’ll get some good moments and you’ll get some bad moments. It’s also a test of your character.”
The management had no option but to bring the squad together as swiftly as possible, so they had a one-day get-together at the Aviva Stadium on August 29th, just to talk. No training.
“A lot of good things came out and I think the main thing was that the players realised that your country is more important than your province. There were some good discussions between different groups and it was very positive.”
The emergence of a new group of would-be leaders and relative newcomers to the Test arena also energised the squad. “I come from a system that was completely isolated and we never had opportunities to play against international teams,” Smal says of a playing career limited to six caps against the likes of the inaptly named New Zealand Cavaliers and a World Invitation XV.
“You can play for your province, which is quite important as well, but if you want to create a legacy for yourself you play against the best in the world. I think they realise that and there was a lot of energy around that kind of concept, especially certain individuals who still want to get to that stage.”
Once they had a renewed sense of primacy regarding international rugby and a renewed energy, they also had to improve their skill level, which Smal accepts “wasn’t good enough” in Hamilton. This required the coaches to facilitate greater clarity in what the team was seeking to do, but without being too restrictive.
“You don’t want to make players into robots. You want to give them the freedom, and that’s exactly what we did, and they just expressed themselves. To give them the freedom with the clarity, and not making them robots is the key.”
Clearly, Smal scarcely takes a break from rugby, even when Test rugby goes into hibernation. Not only are there training sessions, games and manifold meetings to attend, he watches a huge amount of rugby matches every week.
“Let me first say that my job is my passion. I’m looking at other games as well, not just Irish games. I look at games in South Africa and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere to keep up with the trends, to look at new ways of doing things. How can we do it better?”
He would, he reckons, easily watch five games “live” each weekend, as well as recorded games. “You have to keep your wife happy also, otherwise you would sit in front of the television the whole weekend.”
Cliffs of Moher
Smal admits he would still like to see more of Ireland with Patti and their kids Dean (18) and Tammy (16), who is sitting her Leaving Cert this year, such as the Ring of Kerry. So where has he been? “Bushmills,” he quips. “I’ve been to Belfast with the players, obviously. I’ve been to the Cliffs of Moher, the Giant’s Causeway. They were probably the first things that we did; and kissed the Blarney Stone with the kids.”
He grew up in the Northern Free State, about 200km from Bloemfontein, before moving to Cape Town. His dad plays the concertina and the saxophone, his daughter is musically-minded, and he enjoys going to shows. “The best is the people,” he says of living in Ireland. “I enjoy the people. The worst most probably is the recession. Everybody talks about the weather, so I don’t have to talk about it, but it’s more the recession. When we came (in 2009) it was just starting to unravel and it was sad to see.”
Smal, like Kidney and Les Kiss, is out of contract at the end of the season, and most probably they would like to see this journey through to the 2015 World Cup, but he says: “The most important thing is the Six Nations. We don’t think about contracts. We know the pressures of this kind of job. If we concentrate on contracts, we’re missing out on other things.
“The important thing is to get the best out of the players, that we can do the best that we can as a coaching staff and just add better to Irish rugby.”
Smal borrows my pad and draws a box with circles inside it highlighting each coach’s responsibilities, but circles don’t cover all of the box unless they overlap, so each coach also contributes to other areas in order not to leave any blank spaces.
“Whatever you can add in other parts of the game we share it. You can’t just sit back and concentrate on your own specific responsibilities. Especially with the experience we all have, it’s an absolute waste not to.”
A good Six Nations? He speaks slowly, calmly and measuredly. “We want to win every game that we play. That’s what we focus on. The first one first. I know everyone says it, but it’s the only way. We’re going to go for it. We know we’re playing a Welsh team that’s very physical, that’s a good team.
“We’re under no illusions of what’s lying ahead of us. The only thing we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can, prepare the players as best we can, prepare as a team as best we can, and go out there and give ourselves the best chance to win the first game and then we’ll assess it afterwards and for the next game against England we’ll do exactly the same. There’s no different way of doing it.
“Obviously we’re not in this competition just to win one or two games, we want to win this competition. And if we can win a Grand Slam, even better. But first things first.”