Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal recently added a Six Nations winners’ medal to those he earned in the Tri-Nations and World Cup. He spoke to SA Rugby magazine.
Have you enjoyed the experience with Ireland to date?
It’s been very stimulating in the sense that I’m expanding my knowledge and experiencing another culture while doing so, which has been a great life experience. I was acutely aware that as a South African I am an ambassador and needed to maintain an excellent standard. I think I’ve made my country proud and paved the way for other South African coaches to come here.
How does Ireland head coach Declan Kidney compare to the coaches you’ve worked with?
Very well. He’s very similar to Jake White in that he’s a former teacher, which probably helped hone his man-management skills, which are very good. Like Jake he’s coached a lot of the current squad at schoolboy and junior international level. That’s hugely beneficial. He’s tactically astute and very open to input from his coaching team.
What was the key to Ireland’s Six Nations success?
It had more to do with events leading into each match than the matches themselves. There are good structures in place in Ireland which are geared towards making the national team successful. The national coaching staff have a superb relationship with the coaching staff of the various provinces and they’re very accommodating to any requests we may have. They see the bigger picture, which is if Ireland are successful, Irish rugby in turn will be successful.
Was there any stage where you thought the game might slip through your hands in Cardiff?
I thought we let Wales back in by giving away two penalties when we were 14-6 up. We should have buried them then. At the end of the match it was a roller coaster of emotions because we went from thinking we could lose, to the joy of winning the Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Six Nations.
What are your thoughts on Ireland’s pack?
They’ve done well over the course of the season, although there is room for improvement. There’s a good balance of senior and junior players which the world’s best teams strive for. Our lock pairing is one of the best in the world and we’ve got a solid front and back row. The ingredients are there for sustained success.
You’ve coached teams with great captains. How does Brian O’Driscoll compare?
He’s right up there. He has the respect and admiration of the entire team. He took a lot of criticism on the 2008 end-of-year tour because his form dipped, but he stayed focused and always had the support of the team. Now he’s back to his best and has underlined what a world-class player he is.
You’ve won the World Cup, Tri-Nations and Six Nations. What goals do you have left in your career?
Sustained success with Ireland. We don’t have the depth that South Africa has, so the next challenge is to build some depth and keep this team competitive. We want to close the gap on the southern-hemisphere sides. We’re also in the process of identifying the core group for the 2011 World Cup.
Do you see yourself coaching in South Africa again?
I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved here with Ireland but I’m South African and my heart will always be there. I didn’t leave for any other reason than to grab a life opportunity for myself and my family. I would love to come back one day and share the experience that I’ve gained with coaches and players in South Africa.
By Ryan Vrede