Cape Town - After the Bulls got blown away by Irish sides Leinster and Connacht in the opening weeks of the United Rugby Championship, coach Jake White felt that it was part of the growing pains for South African teams.
White compared Leinster in particular to the Super Rugby giants Crusaders of New Zealand, who won the last three editions of that tournament before the SA teams exited the competition following the cancelled 2020 season due to Covid-19.
The Bulls needed to get used to the URC teams, and have to build considerable squad depth to compete with the likes of Leinster, who normally boast a near all-Test starting XV.
White has made some excellent signings since he arrived at Loftus Versfeld from Japan, including the likes of Morné Steyn, Marcell Coetzee, Johan Goosen and Bismarck du Plessis, and is trying to bring a world-class tighthead prop to Pretoria following the departure of Trevor Nyakane to Racing 92.
But now he may have an extra trump card up his sleeve going forward in the shape of Gert Smal. They were colleagues when the Springboks won the 2007 World Cup, and have reunited in the capital city, with Smal now the head coach of the Bulls Currie Cup side.
The 60-year-old, though, was the forwards coach for Ireland from 2008 to 2013, so he will have a clear idea of how Leinster, Connacht, Munster and Ulster players and coaches think about and approach the game.
“It’s just Currie Cup (team that he is coaching), but through my experience, whatever IP (intellectual property) I have in terms of international experience, I will share it with them,” Smal said after the Bulls beat Western Province 40-21 in Cape Town on Wednesday.
“Even in Japan, I really enjoyed the coaching there with Steve Hansen and Simon Cron, and it gave me a great opportunity to see how they think about the game.
“It’s something we can also do a bit better in South Africa, and that’s the experience that you want to share with especially young coaches.
“I’m also still friendly with coaches down here, like Rito (Hlungwani) and Shimmy (Hanyani Shimange), and whenever I get a chance, it’s nice to share a coffee with them.”
Talking about Province, it was strange to see Smal wearing a Bulls top during the post-match press conference at Cape Town Stadium, having been a diehard WP man for most of his playing and coaching career.
He left his post as the WP director of rugby in early 2019 after expressing his unhappiness with how the union was being managed, and said on Wednesday night that he had to grab the work opportunities that have come his way since.
Smal joined Japanese club Toyota Verblitz as an assistant coach, and then signed for the Bulls recently for the Currie Cup job.
But he is hopeful that WP will sort out their boardroom problems after being placed under administration by SA Rugby last November.
“When I made the decision initially (to join the Bulls), it was a bit of an emotional one. But then, it’s a professional game. I’ve been in different countries coaching and against South Africa as well,” Smal said.
“You go where the opportunities are… There is nothing in Cape Town, and this opportunity came up, and I’m glad for it. It’s a nice new challenge, especially now with the two teams, but it’s just one group.
“Just to get everybody on the same page and see that everybody is well prepared for the Saturday game, Wednesday game and Saturday game… it’s a different kind of dynamic, which is quite stimulating.
“It’s not a case of they (WP) didn’t treat me well… It’s purely what happened to the union at the time, and I was just very disappointed with how it was managed, and it was one of the reasons why I left.
“It’s sad to see that it went down so badly, but at least it seems like there is now a point of return… So, we will have to see now how they put it together, because that’s also going to be the next, different challenge.”