Cape Town – When you research “famous Francos” online, a few
obvious ones come up pretty quickly, whether by first-name or surname.
There is the American movie and television actor James
Franco, veteran Italian director/producer of operas, films and television
Franco Zeffirelli –going strong at a ripe old 93 – and of course General Francisco
Franco, the late right-wing Spanish dictator.
Down in the earthy vicinity of Bloemfontein, South Africa, a
few babbies-stricken but still
ecstatic Free State Cheetahs fans might well protest with some conviction: “What
about Franco Smith, then?”
An unassuming man who doesn’t speak in extravagant words -- and
very seldom reaches the levels of mid-match animation evidenced from men like Heyneke
Meyer or Michael Cheika -- Petrus Francois Smith, 44, has just coached the
less-than-juggernaut central union to their fifth Currie Cup rugby title and
first since 2007.
In doing so, they rampaged unbeaten through the competition
– 10 wins out of 10 – and their run included particularly emphatic victories in
each of the critical semis and final phase.
In short, as worthy a bunch of champions as you could wish for
in any given year.
Let’s not be so
ungenerous as to pee on the parade by reminding that the modern format of the
competition sees it stripped of 30 or so of the country’s Springboks.
It is what it is,
with different value and purpose these days, and Smith’s charges managed to be
a truly feel-good story, regardless of the backdrop.
I still have my doubts, as expressed last week, as to
whether they are ready to make a pronounced step upward in Super Rugby just
yet; their roster for 2017 will be a stiffer one than this year’s was, so maybe
just emulating or fractionally bettering their 2016 showing in a year when they
tackle the five-strong might of New Zealand’s finest could be viewed as progress?
Yet those are thoughts for another day.
In a fragile national climate, it is wonderful that
Lichtenburg-born Smith is just another of a swelling group of determined,
innovative young rugby coaches in South Africa doing their damnedest to prosper
against a rising tide of domestic drawbacks.
Just as gratifyingly, and in a move for which embattled
Springbok head coach Allister Coetzee is to be thoroughly commended, the
Cheetahs mastermind now moves seamlessly and invitingly to a higher tier as he
assists – backline and general skills departments, especially – in Coetzee’s
back-up team for the traditional end-of-year tour.
Don’t expect an instant turnaround to tottering Bok fortunes
simply because Smith will inject a limited dose of his wisdom over the next few
weeks in chillier, notably gloomier climes than the Vrystaat.
But it seems a firm step in the right direction, and
something that could bear tangible fruit down the line for Coetzee … don’t they
say that the best leaders are those prepared to be properly “challenged” by
others, rather than simply surrounding themselves with nodding heads?
Smith is rightly in vogue, and a cross-section of the
SuperSport pundits involved in presentation of Saturday’s Currie Cup final were
not shy to demonstrate their admiration.
Naturally Nick Mallett, never short of an opinion which
explains why he sounds hoarse so often, led the salaams.
That was to be expected for other reasons: it was Mallett,
during a record winning sequence as Bok coach in the late 1990s, who was
responsible for giving Smith all of his nine Test caps as a player, recognising
the cerebral qualities as a utility element you got from him even if he wasn’t
ever going to be a Michael du Plessis or Danie Gerber for true X-factor.
Smith started his international career as replacement
flyhalf, off the bench, for Jannie de Beer in the Boks’ famous 68-10 trampling
of Scotland at Murrayfield, and ended it – his only defeat among the nine
appearances – in a 34-18 reverse to New Zealand at Loftus in August 1999, when
he was the inside centre and midfield partner of Andre Snyman.
First and foremost, Mallett said he believed Smith had
created an environment conducive to his initially relatively modest squad of Cheetahs
players punching well above their anticipated weight.
“If players are happy, even with less money (than others
elsewhere), it means a lot, and you have a better chance of keeping them.
“This bunch might become a little like the Lions, who’ve
been together under (Johan) Ackermann for some three years.”
Mallett, far from a stranger to Italian rugby, believes
Smith cut his teeth quite critically at coaching level – “he really learnt a
lot there” -- in his time at the helm of Treviso (2007-13), which included
overseeing their march to the country’s Championship title in each of 2008/09
and 2009/10 from previously more humdrum terrain on the table.
“He is innovative, and will be a fantastic addition to the
RWC 1995 final game-breaker Joel Stransky was barely less
effusive: “Unbelievable job by Franco Smith … he’s built a (winning) team from
Another Bok flyhalf icon, Naas Botha, added: “He’s brought
the Cheetahs a way to play that they really enjoy. The work-rate of that back
three (Clayton Blommetjies, Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen) is phenomenal.
“He has also sorted out their nine and ten area … Niel
Marais used to be a slow sort of flyhalf. He’s a good player now.”
Should we suggest Smith become branded “General Franco” at
some point of his fast-rising coaching career?
Probably not … there’s too little of a jackboot dictator in
His qualities somehow seem more serene, more people-friendly
and generally more appealing than that.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing