At 42, Smal is a man who has paid his dues. This week Smal takes his team to Christchurch in New Zealand to take part in the semi-finals of the 2004 Vodacom Super 12.
Through self-sacrifice and loyalty, rugby has rewarded him with a degree and a diploma, a passport to all five continents of the world and a rich tapestry of memories and friendships. This is his story.
With apologies to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Investec Stormers coach Gert Smal is a man whose philosophy on rugby might reflect the patriotic call of the former US President.
It would, thus, not be surprising to hear Smal borrowing a phrase from the late JFK and modifying it to reflect his own vocation: ‘Ask not what rugby can do for you, ask what you can do for rugby.’
‘The game has been good to me and has given me opportunities in life,’ says Smal, who was born in Kimberley and bred in Kroonstad.
He is a man who has reached the summit of success – first as a flank for Western Province and the Springboks, and later as coach of Investec WP and the Stormers and the Boks’ assistant coach.
In primary school, he cut his teeth at Craven Week in 1974 as a fullback for Northern Free State. But it was in Standard 9, when one of his rugby coaches at De Wet Nel Technical High had the sudden inspiration of switching Smal to lock that proved the defining moment of his career.
Smal immediately proved his worth and, three weeks later, he was on his way to Craven Week where he captained the winning side in matric. Offers of sports bursaries to universities saw him enrolled at Potchefstroom University where he graduated with a BSc degree.
At 19, Smal made his Currie Cup debut for Western Transvaal and, by the age of 21, he was the captain of the side.
A rugby bursary to Stellenbosch University gave him the oportunity to study mechanical engineering, and he was soon on his way to Newlands to join one of Western Province’s greatest ever Currie Cup sides, which reigned supreme from 1982-86.
Greats such as Carel and Michael du Plessis, Divan Serfontein and Hempies du Toit, were stars of the side, and quality loose forwards Theuns Stofberg, Kulu Ferreira, Nick Mallett, Rob Louw and Smal were all competing for places.
‘I got a call from Doc Craven who said if I wanted to play for the Springboks, I should play my rugby in the Cape. I said that WP already had three or four Springbok loose forwards in the side and Doc replied: “Come down and take up the challenge against these top Springboks”. It did not take much convincing as it was a dream of mine to put on the WP jersey. I had always admired WP’s open style, which I felt suited my own game.
‘Competition for places in the side was phenomenal and later featured myself, Louw, Mallett, Charl Cronje, Deon Lotter, Charlie Marais, Schalk Burger and Tiaan Strauss all vying for selection. I can tell you, the Monday night practise between the A and the B sides was so fierce, it was like playing another Currie Cup game!’ said Smal.
From 1985, Smal was a regular in the side and, in 1986, he finally realised the ultimate honour of Springbok selection when he played all four tests against the New Zealand Cavaliers.
‘During that era, we had one of the greatest backlines ever, featuring creativity, power and pace in players such as Divan and Naas (Botha), Carel and Michael (du Plessis), Ray Mordt, Danie Gerber and Johan Heunis.’
Sporting isolation, however, also meant that opportunities for further caps evaporated after Smal played his fifth and sixth tests against a World XV. So he decided to spread his wings and was soon off to Italy where he signed for Rovigo in 1989, later to be joined by Naas Botha.
The prospect of making the 1995 Rugby World Cup squad, however, brought Smal back to the Republic in the early 90s. But in 1993, injury forced him into retirement.
However, his rugby career was not quite finished yet. He began coaching with Gardens Tech where he first met future Bok stars Corné Krige, Percy Montgomery and Hottie Louw. He later moved to Parow NTC before being invited by Western Province to be the assistant coach to former head coach Alan Zondagh. He also later assisted Harry Viljoen. Then in 1997, Carel du Plessis was appointed Bok coach and summoned Smal to join his coaching team.
It was a short but valuable tenure with the Boks before he left for East London to coach his first Currie Cup side, Border. Two years later, WP lured him back to Newlands as head coach, and this time, he invited Du Plessis to assist him.
It was a move that brought instant success for a WP team that won the Currie Cup in 2000 and 2001, culminating in Smal’s appointment as Investec Stormers coach in 2002 and as Bok assistant coach last year.
Smal’s coaching philosophy is to create an environment where players can develop and express their full potential on and off the field.
‘I set high standards for myself and my players. The ultimate objective is to make a difference to everyone I work with. And I want our fans to forget about all the stresses of life when they are watching us play.’