Sept 14 – Gert’s night of reckoning

Keo argues the World Cup will determine Gert Smal’s right to a sustained future in South African rugby’s national coaching structure.

Gert Smal, by nature of his longevity in Springbok rugby, should be regarded as the best forward coach in South Africa. Equally, given this association with the Springboks, he should be considered the best in the world.

He should be, but he isn’t.

Too often in the last five years the Springbok pack has stumbled when pre-match predictions were of a pending stampede. Lesser forwards have stood up to the Springbok challenge in critical games and the Boks have rarely been destructive in dealing with the opposition. Intellectually the Boks forwards have also been manipulated and mastered by seemingly lesser minds.

South Africa’s performance against the overrated French at Port Elizabeth in 2005 was an exception. That day the Boks battered the French in every discipline of forward play. The Boks were the stronger scrum; the more influential in the lineout and the forwards were more powerful in the contact areas, winning the collisions and controlling the tempo of the game through the effectiveness of the pack. The Boks were also smarter.

But the big wins away from South Africa have been minimal, with the two tests against England at Twickenham last November too dominant in any Bok forward play highlights package of the last five years.

Smal had a season as Bok forward coach in 1997, contributing to three wins in eight starts. In terms of international coaching experience he was still in nappies and that year was necessary for his development. But after this World Cup there can be no excuses because it is after this World Cup that Smal’s effectiveness as a forward specialist at the highest level has to be measured. Smal, at the conclusion of the World Cup, will have had the Bok forwards for five successive years in which time they’d have played more than 60 tests. If he hasn’t done it by then he never will.

If the Bok forwards are not rated one or two in the tournament then the South African Rugby Pty Ltd bosses need to point the finger straight at Smal, do a rugby audit of his tenure and make the necessary change. If the Bok pack triumphs and is the foundation of World Cup success, then Smal appoints himself as the national forward guru and provision will have to be made for him in any national structure.

Smal, the Bok pack leader, will rightly tell you his role is greater than the solidity of the Bok tight five during scrum time. If you’re assessing left and right shoulder stability and dominance from the props then the first audit is on Bok scrum specialist Balie Swart. But when it comes to the Bok forward package, be it technique, approach, intelligence or influence; be it lineouts, scrums, kick-offs or at the breakdown; then the accountability is Smal’s. So too whatever kudos that may flow from the World Cup.

At the 2003 World Cup Smal worked with John Smit, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Danie Rossouw. Back then Smal said he did not have enough time with the pack, having been introduced to the national set-up in the World Cup year. He, like the 2003 coach Rudolf Straeuli, bemoaned the Bok forwards’ naivety. The two agreed the Boks had forwards blessed with potential to be the best, but they rejected the view that these players were the best. They were, said Smal, a work in progress.

Four years later and the work will be judged at the World Cup. There can be no escape on the basis of the Boks fielding an inexperienced pack. No South African pack in the last decade has boasted as much experience or continuity in terms of selection and game exposure. Os du Randt has added even greater experience to the tight five, CJ van der Linde is a 40-test veteran and Albert van den Berg and Bob Skinstad will add a combined 85 tests to the available depth. Both also played in the 1999 World Cup and both were in Paris for the famous quarter-final win against England.

Matfield, in the last four years, has won global recognition as the best lineout jumper in the world and the most destructive opposition jumper. Smal, in Paris, has in Matfield, (Bakkies) Botha and Burger three players who would make a World XV and this trio is complemented by the imposing (Danie) Rossouw and Smith.

Smal could not be working with a better group of forwards, yet too often the Boks have come second to the All Blacks in the forward exchanges and worryingly have even lost a few marginal decisions to the Wallabies pack. Also don’t forget the blow outs against France at Newlands in 2005 and Australia in Brisbane a fortnight later.

The humiliation at Twickenham in 2004, when the Boks trailed 32-9 on the hour before losing 32-16, can only be fixed at this World Cup when the Boks play England on September 14. The forwards and Smal, in particular, will determine how far South Africa goes in this tournament.

In the last four years Smal, like head coach Jake White, has benefited from building for the greater cause of the World Cup. Any one-off disappointment was softened with reference to the bigger picture.

Well, we’re now a matter of weeks away from seeing that big picture and Smal’s contribution to how this picture looks.

White, in 2004, defended the Boks submission against England at Twickenham as boys losing to men, which stretched the imagination. Du Randt, Smit, Botha, Matfield and Burger were among these so-called boys. The other pups bullied by the supposed English bulldogs were AJ Venter and Joe van Niekerk.

England’s bullies were Graham Rowntree, Steve Thompson, Julian White and Danny Grewcock in the tight five and Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry among the back rowers. Only the loosies remain for the Friday night fun in Paris on September 14.

White, in 2004, was excused the flight of fancy that described Du Randt as a boy and Worsley as a man. But in Paris he, like Smal, won’t have any metaphorical license. They will be judged on what happens that night. And rightly so.