Gavin Rich, SuperSport
Cape Town - The defeat to the Waratahs at the weekend would not have suited Gert Smal, who at the end of his first week as director of rugby at Western Province was eager to see the Stormers go into the break for the bye with some sense of calm.
Smal will be talking to all the role-players at the Stormers over the next two weeks, including both management and playing personnel, as part of the assessment he wants to do before beginning to plot the way forward.
But while he has said that he will not back out of making hard decisions should they be necessary, he doesn’t want to see the current Stormers coaches go through what he went through at the end of his four year stint in charge of the franchise between 2002 and 2005.
"I must say firstly that this coming period is so important for the team as I don’t want to happen to them what happened to me," said Smal in an interview on the supersport.com website.
"I like Nick Mallett.
"He is a great coach, I played with him and I have coached against him.
"He is one of the former WP players I would like to tap into for his knowledge if I can.
"But when he was in the role of director of rugby he came into the change-room after my last game in charge and said a lot of things.
"It was a very emotional time and I know what the players felt after that game.
"It was a difficult experience to go through, and a lot has come out much later.
"Again, as I said, I do like Nick, but I wouldn’t want anyone in the current set-up to go through what we went through.
"So it is important for the team to stabilize and pick up a little bit of momentum over this next period so that the engagement with the coaches and players can be constructive."
The match that Smal was referring to was the 2005 clash with the Bulls in Pretoria.
Up to that point, Smal had never lost a match against the Bulls as Stormers coach, and he feels those who recall just the 75-14 defeat that ended his first career at the Stormers may be selective in what they choose to pinpoint.
And he may have a point there, for while the Loftus massacre was a crushing way for his stint at Newlands to end – he already knew it was his last game beforehand, that had been decided as he focused from then on more fully on his role as Springbok assistant coach – it was in fact his first defeat to a South African team in Super Rugby.
"That is correct.
"I hadn’t lost to a local team before that.
"You have to remember that it was a very different era.
"At that time we (South Africa) were a long way behind New Zealand and Australia, mainly because we weren’t really up to scratch with the development of our defensive systems.
"It was something I later regretted.
"I focused too much on other things, like attack, and not enough on defence, but that was the way at that time."
Indeed, and it was also the way at that time for South African teams to be judged in relation to how they did in comparison with other local teams rather than the overseas one.
In that sense, Smal was the best South African Super coach of that era, so comparing his record then with Allister Coetzee’s current win percentage might not be quite comparing apples to apples.
There was a seismic shift in 2007, when the Sharks and Bulls dominated the Super 14, and the development of defensive systems has helped South Africa hold its own in the competition since then, such as in 2010, when the Bulls and Stormers met in the final.
But while he has never taken a second look at that Bulls game on video, preferring to move on, Smal says you need to go through tough times to grow as a coach.
"On the day the Bulls were awesome, as they frequently were during that period.
"It was a reminder that if you are not completely up for a game at this level and you are playing a good team you can be taken apart.
"But there were also lots of things going on in the background that day, and there were two yellow cards during it that made it much harder.
"To be honest though I’ve never watched that game again and have dusted it off.
"After that there was a World Cup title with the Boks and Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown with Ireland.
"You have to bounce back, that is what coaching teaches you.
"It was a difficult time, and it is funny to talk about it now.
"I remember a newspaper billboard that said ‘Smal’s balls on the wall’.
"My kids had to see that. It wasn’t easy.
"Then there was a cartoon after the Pope abdicated. It depicted the smoke signals coming out of the Vatican and a caricature of me with the question 'Will he go or will he stay?'"
Those who criticise the WP decision to employ Smal on the basis of what he did nearly a decade ago have it wrong, for it is clear he has undergone a great deal of personal growth since 2005.
As you would expect from a man who has worked overseas for four years, he feels he brings back a different perspective that could ultimately benefit not just Cape rugby but also South Africa as a whole.
"One of the biggest things my stint in Ireland did was offer me an opportunity to look at South African rugby with an outside view," said Smal, who started his coaching career at WP at the age of 37 and now returns to them into his sixth decade of life.
"When playing against South Africa you get to assess both the strengths and the weaknesses of the game here, and it does give you a new perspective.
"Ireland rugby doesn’t have the beef available to it so you have to find different ways to get momentum and to score tries.
"And if you look at the type of players we have in the Cape, we don’t always have the beef like they have in some other parts of the country.
"With that knowledge, maybe we need to be a little like Ireland and find ways to get the game to benefit us and we need to add an extra edge to the usual approach South Africans are used to."
But if that sounds like something that comes out of the hymn book of his former coaching partner at Bok and WP level, Carel du Plessis, you need to think again.
Smal believes his statement at the announcement press conference that he wanted to return to the traditional WP way may have been misconstrued.
The traditional WP way, according to Smal, is definitely not throwing the ball around willy-nilly and playing Sevens style rugby.
Listening to him speak, you would describe him as a pragmatic contemporary realist in approach rather than someone who advocates all-out attacking rugby.
He believes, like almost everyone does, that the Stormers need to move away from being too defensive in mindset, but it is balance that he preaches.
"I will decide after I have had a chance to speak to everyone and make a proper assessment just how much of a change needs to be made to the existing culture," said Smal.
"There are obviously a lot of burning issues, both from the team viewpoint and the fans.
"We need to look at the attack.
"The defence has been outstanding, although I felt some weaknesses were exposed in the Currie Cup last year.
"What I want to do is effect change in such a way that we can retain our strength in defence while also playing rugby that scores tries.
"At the end of the day tackles don’t equate to tries.
"I want to build on a good pack and have skills in the backline.
"We have to organise the game-plan around those strengths, but you know yourself that you can’t just run all the time.
"Tactical kicking is a big part of the game.
"You have to kick, and it comes down to when you kick and when you run.
"You can’t get away from the fact that you have to have structure, that there are areas of the field you have to play a certain way and do certain things."
Smal said the main emphasis would be to introduce a bit of unpredictability to the WP/Stormers game and to promote a system that encourages players to back themselves more and be less afraid of making mistakes.
"It is important not to create unrealistic expectations," he said.
"We will play in the trenches when we have to play in the trenches, when winning requires that.
"We will play a kicking game when that is required.
"For me it is all about creating balance."