Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Cheetahs head coach and Bok assistant FRANCO SMITH discusses his side's potential Super Rugby axing and previews the derby against the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: The Cheetahs lie fifth in the South African group. What is your take on the season?
Franco Smith: It has been very disappointing suffering back-to-back defeats against the Jaguares and Sharks over consecutive weekends and only registering two wins from five matches. However, for me, it’s easy to see that we are a much better side than we were this time last season. From a physical standpoint we have made a big step up from last season. Rugby-wise we are much more confident in what we do and I’m enthused by the level of growth within the group. Nevertheless, we are still searching for a complete 80-minute performance. If you were to examine our track record this term you would find that we tend to give away points between the 45th and 60th minutes. Especially during that period, I feel we are playing not to lose instead of fighting to win. We are trying to break our drought and the players are getting anxious and don’t want to disappoint. I believe it’s just a mindset change that is needed because we possess young players with pedigree. Improved game management ultimately comes down to maturity and we are growing as a team with each passing week. We must no longer allow external pressure to influence our decision-making and I have said to the players that we can only control the controllables. With the ball-in-hand approach we employ, it’s absolutely critical to be confident in what we do and back ourselves. The stats show that we’ve made the most ball carries, line breaks and offloads in the competition which is pleasing.
Sport24 asked: What impact would it have if the Cheetahs were to be dumped from Super Rugby?
Franco Smith: I believe it would be a real tragedy if the Cheetahs were to be cut from Super Rugby in the near future. The impact it would have if the Cheetahs are not part of Super Rugby would be enormous. South Africa would lose many more talented players abroad because the remaining local franchises would simply not be able to accommodate all of them. Furthermore, it would deprive the central region of South Africa of something very special. We must remember that Cheetahs rugby doesn’t only exist out of Bloemfontein. The franchise also comprises players from the Griqualand West and Welkom areas. And if you ask anybody that is honest about rugby, the Cheetahs are most supporters’ second team in SA and that is a tag we carry with pride. Moreover, it must say something because as a province we boast two teams competing in the Varsity Cup. We possess a rich pipeline of talent, and while it has proved challenging keeping some of our premier players over the years due to restricted financial resources, we have remained competitive. I’m adamant the impact the Cheetahs have made over the years in South African rugby must be recognised by us retaining our Super Rugby status. The open style of play in Free State has always influenced SA rugby in some way and I see it as a symbol for the enterprise and fighting spirit which exists within our game.
Sport24 asked: The Cheetahs have missed the fifth most tackles this term. Is your defence flawed?
Franco Smith: Super Rugby is a step up and it takes time and effort to perfect defence but ours is definitely not problematic. Our defensive principle is about numbers and channels and we never get outsmarted. We have adopted a line speed approach on defence, which I trained for seven years in Italy, and know works well. It gave us good reward in the Currie Cup and now we must stick to it. People may see our defence as a weakness but our tackle completion rate is much higher this season than last. The way sides approach Super Rugby games is different. Southern hemisphere sides play with more freedom in order to get crowds through the gates. The main objective in Super Rugby is to keep the ball in hand and score as many tries as possible. When you look at defence you have to understand that other teams have the capabilities to score tries as well. It’s a misperception that I only focus on attack and I’m in favour of a ball-in-hand approach at all costs. I’m actually more defence-minded because that is the only way that you can truly understand attack. As a head coach at the Cheetahs I work on every principle of the oval-shaped game - attack, defence, set-piece, kicking, breakdown - but it is true that all the local Super Rugby franchise coaches are attack-driven this season. Defence wins finals and definitely remains a top priority but the reason I also advocate attack is because I believe our players possess the necessary skill set to express themselves on an offensive front. Many people suggest the ball skills of South African rugby players is below par but I would beg to differ. If we can create more try scoring opportunities and get our execution rate higher, our teams have the capability to score a plethora of five-pointers. The main aim is to back up said try-scoring ability with sound defence, solid first-phases and effective territorial distribution through smart tactical kicking.
Sport24 asked: You will form part of the second Springbok training camp. What plans are in place?
Franco Smith: The second three-day training camp, which will be held in Stellenbosch from Sunday, will focus mainly on defence and exit strategies. However, to allow for continuity from the first camp some time will also be set aside to work on attack. We all want the Springboks to win and the objective is to get a decent product out there as well. It’s never going to just be a ball-in-hand, kicking or defensive game because once you get into a Springbok camp and prepare for a Test match you have to assess the skill set of the players, what level you are at and the demands of the particular fixture. You then adapt your game plan accordingly. If you don’t have the players to execute an attacking game it won’t be smart to play an all-out attacking game. However, I believe that if we want to move forward and win the 2019 Rugby World Cup, we will have to score more tries than the opposition. I’m enjoying my involvement with the Springboks as attack and skills coach. It would be a great honour to one day serve as Springbok head coach but it’s not part of the discussion at this stage. I just want to give of my best and develop the players’ all-round skills in order to excel for South Africa. All the franchise coaches have bought into that concept and I want to build a solid foundation whereby South African players can embrace an attack-minded approach and not just a conservative structure.
Sport24 asked: Johan Ackermann is tipped to join Gloucester. What did you gain coaching abroad?
Franco Smith: I spent seven years coaching Benetton Treviso in Italy. We played in the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup competitions. I learned an enormous amount from my northern stint and was able to measure myself against coaches such as Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland and Vern Cotter who have all gone on to coach at Test level. Heading abroad certainly represents a good opportunity to learn from other people and I would encourage other South African coaches to experience it at some point in their careers. Having played and coached in Europe for a number of years, I felt it was important to bring the knowledge and experience I had gained back to South Africa so that we can all benefit from the insights. My coaching philosophy is fundamentally about marrying the good from the northern and southern hemispheres in order to unearth the best product. Beautiful and winning rugby is the goal. It’s very important to be adaptable as a professional rugby coach and to ensure that you have the right approach for every competition. My philosophy has always been that if you equip the players well enough to express themselves on the field, you’ll give yourself the best chance to be successful.
Sport24 asked: What’s your outlook ahead of the clash with the unbeaten Stormers in Cape Town?
Franco Smith: We will aim to control what we can. From kick-off to the last minute of the match we are going to really make a concerted effort to be competitive. We want to fire for the full 80 minutes and not only during certain periods of the encounter. We know what to do and how to play and it’s about avoiding soft moments. We have been really competitive in our last few fixtures and, in my book, we look as good as any Super Rugby side. However, the Stormers will prove a tough proposition. We played them in Harare during the pre-season and clearly noticed their new approach. They are a very well-coached and well-organised side and there is a quality skillset that has been cultivated by their coaches. The transfers between their players on attack is sharp and something they’ve worked hard at. Although they’re nursing a few injuries, particularly in the backline, Robbie Fleck’s charges remain a class act and we will have to fire on all cylinders if we are to return to Bloemfontein with the spoils.
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