Jake White
3 minute read
12 Apr 2014
10:00 am

Smal a visionary appointment

Jake White

There has been a storm of comment about Gert Smal's appointment as director of rugby at Western Province, most of it not totally complimentary. Personally, I think it's a visionary appointment.

FILE PICTURE: Jake White. Image courtesy AFP

First, you have to understand that righting the problems that have descended on the Stormers is a project that has to be addressed in stages. There is no quick fix.

There has also been a lot of speculation about Allister Coetzee and what his future holds at Western Province.

Here you have to accept that Allister and Gert are old friends and long-time colleagues. They are both adult enough to accept the new status quo, work together and share a considerable fund of intellectual property.

But the most important factor is linked to the bonds they have shared: Allister knows he can trust Gert.

To zero in on the appointment, we are too quick in this country to lose a coach and never bring him back. So, I have to applaud Western Province for going the route they have.

Gert is an inspired choice. A highly respected international player in his days at Western Province, a successful coach at the union and an asset in the Springbok coaching set-up.

He took all that and grew his knowledge of the game in the role as Ireland’s forwards coach, grooming a pack that had a lot to do with the Irish winning the 2009 Six Nations and doing the Grand Slam for the first time in 61 years.

On top of all that, you have a man who understands the dynamics of the team he has been hired to work with. In short: he has the background.

I was thinking about this aspect while I was watching a schools tournament last weekend. This is where it all started for me with all the youthful enjoyment of the game from the players, the passion of the old boys and all the traditions of the schools. It’s really a great rugby vibe.

It led me to a reflection of how my own path in rugby has panned out. When I first started out, I was a schoolteacher and loved the job. But I also had a passion for coaching and could quite easily imagine myself being the First XV coach for the next 20 years. There have been some great schools coaches. Lappies Labuschagne at Grey College, Basil Bey at Bishops and Skonk Nicholson at Maritzburg College.

I’m not suggesting that I would have reached their legendary status, but it was certainly something to aim at. And the older coaches were always around to answer questions. How do you structure selections? Do you pick players out of their normal position? What do you do when you don’t have lock forwards? The normal problems which face a schools coach.

I remember getting the same feeling of a legacy of experience walking into an All Black changeroom after a Test and seeing Jock Hobbs, Andy Dalton, Colin Meads and Sir Brian Lochore, sitting on the benches and talking to the current team. You don’t get many more revered names in the game sharing their rugby experiences.

Looking around me at the festival I was at last weekend, it struck me that there were no old coaches any more. This was underlined when some of them came up to me and started asking about the next step … into top clubs … into provincial rugby.

I’m not knocking anyone’s ambitions, but two things struck me. These were coaches with probably two seasons behind them and they were already looking to move, but more importantly for me, was the realisation that not everyone coaches for the sheer enjoyment of it.

In this respect, I know from personal experience how deeply Gert feels about the game and his understanding of the team he has rejoined. Western Province have done exactly the right thing in not prioritising the post itself but concentrating on the right guy to fill it.

v Jake White is South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach of 2007 and currently director of coaching at the Sharks.