He’s won a World Cup as a coach, not to mention a couple of Currie Cups. You’d think there wouldn’t be a lot left to get Gert Smal too worked up or nervous.
But Jake White’s coaching assistant at the 2007 World Cup with South Africa calls his first experience of the Six Nations Championship as Ireland's forwards coach “unique, something very special.”
Smal, a big man, also revealed that his first taste of the northern hemisphere’s historic tournament last Saturday, made him nervous.
“I don’t show a lot of emotion, certainly not before a game. But I admit, this time it was there, inside me. I had some great coaching moments with South Africa and in South Africa. But this was certainly up there with them.
“There was a fair amount of pressure on us. We didn’t play well in the autumn internationals so it was important we put up a good performance against France. Now, we have set a good benchmark and want to build on that.”
Gert Smal is neither an overtly flashy man nor one given to stunning public statements of personal excitement. But he stayed up until 0200 on Sunday morning, chatting with rugby friends and opponents, just soaking up the atmosphere of a traditional Six Nations weekend.
“I was aware of the past, the history and tradition of this tournament. Of course, you watch it from afar and see the games but you don’t really understand the traditions behind it all.
“There was an after-match function and then we went back to the hotel before attending the post-match dinner with the French team. The language barrier was a bit difficult but I just enjoyed meeting and talking with fellow rugby people, discussing things and just experiencing the atmosphere.
“It was a very special day in my life. I came here for different experiences; this is the sort of experience I wanted. It is very different and I welcome that because it introduces you to another side of the game. It is all a great experience.”
Smal believes that Ireland can build on Saturday’s 30-21 victory over the French at Croke Park. They now face Italy in Rome on Sunday and he says “There is always pressure on you as coaches because this job is about winning. When you come to another country you want to prove yourself and you don’t want to go through a bad patch. You need a positive result as quickly as possible.
“Rugby is all about taking your chances and soaking up the pressure. Our preparation for this match was good and we were happy with the way the team did those things.
“Getting used to each other as coaches takes some time. But we prepared really well and got a good response from the players.”
How has he found working with the Irish players compared to the South Africans ? “The Irish lads are very nice to work with. They have a high work ethic and you could see that in the game on Saturday. We had a good number of experienced players (as the Springboks had at the World Cup) and you need that to win these kind of pressure games.”
Smal was happy too with his own areas of speciality. “The forwards went well; it was a good performance and I was happy with the scrums and line-outs. You are always critical, you always want to improve. There are things we will address this week because we want to play consistently well. But as a start, this was a good performance.”
The trip to Italy this weekend will also be special for Gert Smal. During his playing days, he spent four years playing club rugby in Italy. “A wonderful country and special people” he says.
But don’t expect Smal’s loyalties to be split this weekend. His focus now is utterly on Ireland.Reuse content