Toyota Cheetahs Director of Rugby Franco Smith believes his team’s possible move to playing in Europe can be beneficial for South African rugby as a whole.
With SA Rugby and Pro12 both confirming they are in discussions to add two South African teams to the competition, the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings’ recent departure from Vodacom Super Rugby means that they are favourites to join the competition in Europe, with a final announcement expected shortly.
Smith, who coached the Cheetahs in the Super Rugby tournament this season, has swopped places with Rory Duncan, and now will be Director of rugby for the Bloemfontein team in order to ready them for an entry into European competitions that he believes will be beneficial not only to the Cheetah brand, but also to the Springboks as a whole.
Smith said while there may have been unhappiness from fans initially when the announcement was made, he believed playing in Europe will help develop test match players for the Springboks.
“I believe the original upset was the uncertainty, it was never about changing competitions but rather about the uncertainty about what will happen next,” Smith said.
“I believe an opportunity to play in Europe will benefit both the Cheetahs and also South African rugby. We will always play test match rugby, and it is a lot different to championship rugby but I believe the experience of playing in Europe more often will benefit South African rugby a lot. I think test match rugby is similar to what is happening up north, less opportunity, less space because of the conditions.
“I think a lot of us, especially the Cheetahs, grew up with a dry ball, and it was always a pleasure, and we grew up a certain height above sea level that is quite different. Now suddenly where the ball doesn’t travel that far, or where it is colder, or where it is not possible to move the ball across the park as we do here, it is a type of skill and mindset that you will only develop while experiencing it, and I feel Europe offers that.
“This will be important in the complete development of the type of players we have in South Africa. We’re always linked to a quick game in the Southern Hemisphere, because of the conditions we play in and I think New Zealand was a bit ahead of us in this regard because they have both conditions in their own country, and now we are going to experience a bit of the north.
“Sometimes there will be heavy fields, although they will also lead to synthetic pitches, so it will be different. But it will suit us in a certain way, but definitely by us playing there, we can develop another type of player that can be suitable for South Africa in a test match environment.”
Smith said that while the Cheetahs loved to play expansive rugby, small adjustments needed to be made if they were to be successful in Europe.
“I think there are small adjustments that need to be made, it is more about game management, more than anything else. It will be to our advantage to play at home in particular,” he explained.
“If we have the ability to adapt to the rain and other conditions, we will be fine. I must say that in my six years in Treviso, we didn’t play every year more than four games in the rain.
“I think we have an edge in terms of attacking play, but our emphasis will now be to make the defence better. The attack in Europe is very different to the attack in the Southern Hemisphere and our setpiece needs to be better. Their scrums, lineout drives and other facets are very good.
“We definitely need to make adjustments but nothing that is too difficult.
“To be honest, if people analyse the way we play they will realise we play a combination of game plans. A team that drives well can play good rugby, because you tire the opposition’s front five and you make the space between the defenders better. Mauling is a big part of our game already and scrums are a big thing with Daan Human and his experience of five or six years in Toulouse, helps him because he will know what is needed.
“What we have seen over the last 2 ½ years is that through hard work you can make any player into the type of player you need. It will be important to have a good pack of forwards, which aren’t particularly light but who manage themselves well, but the rest of the team will fit perfectly into the type of team we want them to be.”
A final decision on the team’s participation is expected shortly.