Six Nations breaks new ground this Saturday in Cardiff. After 300 games across 20 seasons featuring 31 head coaches from seven different nations, Franco Smith will become the first South African-born coach to take charge of a team in the tournament.
Of course, he’s not the first Springbok to have the honour of coaching a European country in this showpiece event. Nick Mallett, Smith’s old national team coach, was at the Italian helm for four seasons before stepping away following the 2011 World Cup.
But Mallett was English-born and initially reared in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before his family moved to Cape Town, an upbringing that leaves Lichtenburg-born Smith out on his own when he takes charge of the Azzurri at the Principality Stadium.
A year ago, he had no inkling it might turn out like this. While Italy were off losing February matches in what was a demoralising fourth successive wooden spoon campaign, Smith was embarking on a different type of journey through European rugby as boss of the PRO14 Cheetahs.
When RugbyPass caught up with him at that time, his bags were packed for an 18-night, three-match tour taking his team to Galway, Llanelli and Dublin on their fourth of five trips that season across the equator.
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No sooner was he on the phone from the 27°C Bloemfontein was he asking about the winter weather in Ireland. Twelve months later, though, he will have no such qualms, the Principality Stadium roof set to keep everyone as snug as a bug in a rug in Cardiff when the kick-off whistle sounds for Wales versus Italy.
Smith’s situation with the Italians is curious, though. It was May when his club announced he would be leaving for Italy but no proper confirmation emerged until November, the South African eventually installed as interim head coach due to Conor O’Shea prematurely getting out of a contract that was due to run until the end of the 2020 Six Nations.
Interim status is hardly a ringing endorsement for what Smith has to offer in the coming weeks, but he has got down to business quickly, even boldly selecting a rookie second row who has been playing local Italian league rugby this term rather than being full-time involved with Benetton.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 30, 2020
Speaking from afar a year ago, the 47-year-old had suggested things were finally beginning to move in the right direction again at franchise level in Italy, a country where he played and coached at club level.
“The Italians have slowly found their feet, but they now know what is required and the professionalism around their teams has grown,” he said, recalling how very different things had been when he was at the helm in Treviso when they first entered the then Celtic League in 2010/11.
It was a theme he warmed to again at last week’s Six Nations launch in London, hoping the steelier mindset that has allegedly developed at franchise level can eventually pay dividends higher up the ranks in the Six Nations.
“I was one of the big campaigners for us to become part of the Celtic League. Even when I played there in 2003 and 2004, way back in the day really, we pushed for it to become part of the Celtic League. I left Italy in 2013 until now, but the Italy teams, their physicality and the rugby mindset have changed and grown a lot. There is a better perspective physically of what is expected.
“Also, rugby intelligence, that really improved and the younger generation now in Italy is starting to understand what is expected of them. They start at a much earlier age developing skill sets and physicality to be competitive, so the influence of the Six Nations in the last 20 years and also of PRO rugby in the last four to five years will only be seen from now on.”
It was during the 70s as a kid in South Africa when the joys of winter Saturday rugby afternoons in places like Cardiff, Dublin, London, Paris and Edinburgh first captured his imagination, an interest that never waned. Now all these years later he is getting to put his own South African style on proceedings. Sweet.
'I'm going nowhere' is the jist of what Italy boss Conor O'Shea had to tell RugbyPass after Cheetahs' claim about their coach Franco Smith https://t.co/VkbUHtTkL9
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 15, 2019
“I grew up with the Five Nations. It was always a huge thing in South Africa. It was a point of reference for us for a very long time. When it became Six Nations 20 years ago now it was the trendsetter in the way World Rugby was approaching the new law changes. There was always something special about it, the environment, the climate conditions, the difference.
“There was a lot of things that we looked at in South Africa and developed in our game to be competitive in. The end-of-year tours we often had to come up and learn the hard way. This tournament, with the help of very competitive domestic competitions, has developed players and coaches in such an extraordinary way that they are the trendsetters in world rugby.
“From a South African point of view and from my experience of Super Rugby, it’s important to find a blend from a South African perspective between managing the conditions and having the ball in hand. The way the pitches have developed and the roofs are closed now (only in Cardiff, Franco), and there is the ball in hand approach from a lot of teams over the last couple of years.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 7, 2020
“Joe Schmidt, guys like that, brought something different to the game and it showed on this side of the world that rugby can also be played not just from a kicking perspective. If I talk South African rugby we changed our style quite a bit, dramatically in the World Cup when it was tournament competition. It was less ball in hand approach.
“Italy will just have to find that balance, how can we get that perfect blend between ball in hand and field domination… every year is big for Italy. Fortunately, I spent quite a bit of that 20 years (of Six Nations) in Italy so I have got a good perspective on how much it means for them.
“There is a lot of determination, a lot of people in the rugby fraternity in Italy that absolutely love the way that this tournament is presented, the way it is played, the aura around it.”
Where are the excitement levels right now?
Not long until the opening game of the Championship…
Wales v Italy
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 31, 2020
Pity about the results then. Not since February 2015, when they defeated Scotland at Murrayfield 22-19, have the Italians had a win, a yawning gap visible in how Luca Morisi and Tommaso Allan are the only survivors from the 23 that day in Edinburgh who are on board for this visit to Cardiff.
A win anywhere along the line over the next seven weeks and Schmidt’s interim status will be quickly forgotten. However, there will be no guarantees if their current losing streak in the tournament jumps from 22 to 27.
SIX NATIONS HEAD COACHES
7 English-born – Woodward, Robinson, Ashton, M Johnson, Lancaster, Mallett, McGeechan;
7 New Zealand-born – Gatland, Schmidt, Johnstone, Kirwan, Cotter, Henry, Hansen;
3 Australian-born – Jones, Williams, S Johnson;
6 French-born – Laporte, Lievremont, Saint-Andre, Noves, Brunel, Berbizier;
3 Ireland-born – O’Sullivan, Kidney, O’Shea;
3 Wales-born – Ruddock, Jenkins, Howley;
2 Scotland-born – Hadden, Townsend.
* 2020 Six Nations sees the arrival of New Zealand’s Pivac, England’s Farrell, South Africa’s Smith and France’s Galthie as new head coaches
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