Forward thinking

Gert Smal talks to SA Rugby magazine about Ireland’s return to Lansdowne Road, taking on the Bok lineout again, and the new law interpretations.

You live across the road from Lansdowne Road. How special will the first Test back at the ground be?
It will be amazing. Lansdowne Road has always been the traditional home of Irish rugby and is still the oldest rugby stadium in the world. There is a real desire to make it a fortress for the team, but to do that we have to put in a performance and not worry about the history or the occasion.

It will also be your first Test there as an Ireland coach.
The atmosphere at Croke Park was always pretty special for us, but the spectators were a good distance away from the pitch. That won’t be the case at Lansdowne Road, which will make it more intimate for the players and fans.

You were part of the Bok coaching staff that went on a Grand Slam tour in 2004, but this Bok outfit ?seems to be in a very different place. Do you agree?
No, I don’t. That team in 2004, and the one that played against Ireland in 2006, had the nucleus of the side that went on to win the World Cup and was the start of great things for the Boks. They may have lost their Tri-Nations title, but they still have a squad with good strength in depth and players who are able to compete at the very top of international rugby.

As Ireland’s forwards coach you’re also a selector, which wasn’t the case when you were with the Boks. How much of a benefit is that?
During my time with the Boks the assistant coaches had input when it came to player selection; it’s important to give your views as part of that process. As a coach with Ireland, all selection meetings are based on looking at how well players are performing and which players will fit into the team strategy and game plan for a particular match. We attend provincial training sessions so we can see how players do in training and not just matches. We also have regular discussions with the provincial coaches about the players and the game in general.

Much was said about your role in dismantling the Bok lineout last year. Were you surprised they hadn’t changed their calls?
To say we dismantled their lineout is probably overstating how the lineout battle went. I think we prepared and competed well that day, but all teams adapt for each match they play, so no two are the same. It wasn’t a case of knowing their lineout calls, but rather making sure we competed as much as possible and we got the breaks that allowed us to disrupt them. We will need to be on top of our game in order to compete with the Bok lineout again.

Victor Matfield said you taught the Irish forwards Afrikaans before last year’s Test.
When I arrived here I had hoped that we could use Gaelic, the traditional Irish language, to run lineout calls, but it isn’t spoken as widely as I’d thought. A lot has been made of Victor’s comments, but really, my ability to teach Afrikaans is not up to that sort of standard. And the guys even battled to pronounce my name correctly at first. I worked with many of the Boks for over six years and knew their lineout intricacies and abilities so that was a major help and certainly the Irish guys would have been aware of cues and triggers. But the real ability to compete with an opposition lineout comes from detailed analysis, really studying how a team uses its lineouts to attack. We did reasonably well last year, but I expect the Boks to be every bit as difficult to break down in this area.

Have the Boks changed their lineout system since then?
Like any other team, I think their lineout is always evolving and adjusting to the teams they play. No one game is the same and I think the Bok lineout did well during the Tri-Nations. If they still believe we know their calls they will certainly change them.

As many as 13 senior Boks are set to be rested for this tour. How will that affect your preparation?
I don’t know who will be selected for the Boks but the depth in South African rugby means the team will always be strong. In my view there is no such thing as a weak Bok team and any touring squad will be playing for World Cup places, so we will be preparing to face a strong team. The coverage of the Currie Cup is limited here, but I try to catch as many games as possible.

How would you compare the player depth that Ireland has compared to South Africa?
It does come down to numbers and South Africa has always had a big rugby-playing population so the Boks’ strength in depth is probably the best in world rugby. [Ireland coach] Declan Kidney has been building a stronger squad and he increased competition for places over the past 18 months by exposing players to international games and working with the provinces. I think we’re now in a better place than we were before. He has always said that Ireland’s size is actually our strength, as the players know each other so well, have achieved so much together and have an inner belief about what they can achieve. I agree.

Why have Ireland struggled since winning the Grand Slam last year?
Rugby is about small margins. A missed touch here, a dropped ball there and games can get away from you. This year, there were so many moments that didn’t go our way that could have made a difference. You need these things to happen for you to build momentum in a match and once that happens, that momentum can build from game to game. The tour to Australasia was very important for us. While we didn’t win any games and had 14 players injured before we left, it created opportunities for players to test their abilities at that level and to see how they functioned against two of the top three sides in the world. Importantly, the coaches all felt that the players gave us options for selection.

How much have you grown as a coach by working with individuals from different cultures and rugby backgrounds?
It’s been very important for my development as a coach as you pick up so much information, traditions and understanding of the game. Working with Declan, [defence coach] Les Kiss, [backs coach] Alan Gaffney and [kicking coach] Mark Tainton exposes you to a wide range of international experience and views of the game. We’ve all learnt from each other and hopefully I will use that in future.

How have the Irish sides adapted to playing under the new law interpretations and what will Ireland have to do differently for the November Tests?
It was hard to gauge early on in our season. It took time for Super 14 teams to adjust to the new interpretations at the start of the tournament and the northern hemisphere also went through that stage. We are still 11 months and 13 Tests away from the World Cup, so there is quite a bit of time to make any further adjustments. By the time we got to play the southern hemisphere teams in June they’d had four months of the new interpretations. By November, it will be easier to judge how much progress we’ve made.

Is it a concern that many of Ireland’s senior players are over 30 and may be too old at the World Cup?
Age is just a number and it’s all about a player’s ability. We also have a large number of players who are well under 30. I believe you need that balance of experience and youth to give you a strong mix, something that is crucial in a tournament like the World Cup. You need experience to win it, just look at how important Os du Randt was for the Boks in 2007.

– For more on the Grand Slam tour, get the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.