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British & Irish Lions
Smal predicts woe for Lions
Huw Richards
April 9, 2009
South Africa forwards Coach Gert Smal poses with the Rugby World Cup, England v South Africa, Rugby World Cup Final, Stade de France, Paris, France, October 20, 2007
Smal has a glittering CV including a Rugby World Cup triumph with the Springboks and a Six Nations Grand Slam with Ireland © Getty Images
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If the British and Irish Lions are going to be fired up for this summer's tour of South Africa, so too will be the opponents who face them in their 10 scheduled matches, says a man uniquely qualified to understand both sides in the Test series.

Gert Smal is close to the end of a hugely successful first season as Ireland's forward coach, in which he has added his part in their Grand Slam to the World Cup triumph to which he contributed during six years in a similar role with the Springboks.

"It is a huge, once in a lifetime event for South African players," he said. "While the British and Irish can play for the Lions every four years, we have to wait 12 years between visits."

It was an experience Smal himself missed, since his peak as a player coincided with the period when the Lions stopped visiting South Africa because of apartheid. A genial giant with the rumblingly resonant tones associated with Afrikaans-speakers, he also had the tough edge essential to survive in the second row - on one occasion, captured in a much-replayed film on YouTube, laying out All Black Gary Knight with a punch that suggested he might have had a successful alternative career in the ring.

But he confirms that it is not only those old enough to have been brought up on tales of Willie John McBride's invincibles of 1974 who regard playing against the Lions as a massive honour. "When I was with the Springboks, it was something that our players talked about a great deal," he said. "They were talking about it even before we played in the World Cup and I think that one reason many have stayed in South Africa has been to be sure of getting a chance to play against the Lions."

And it won't only be the Test players who are highly motivated. "For every young player in the other teams who will play against the Lions there is the motivation of that once in a lifetime experience and a chance to attract the attention of the selectors, or perhaps a club overseas," he said.

He's greatly looking forward to the series himself, although Churchill Cup duties with Ireland mean he won't return to South Africa until after the first Test in Durban. He's planning to see the second and third Tests, which will both be at high altitude.

Smal insists that you certainly notice the difference in atmosphere when playing on the high veld. "You feel it for the first 20 minutes and you struggle for breath," he said. But he reckons that the Lions programme will give them a chance to acclimatise. "There are three matches on the high veld at the start of the tour. The players will learn how to deal with it, so when they return for the Tests they should be prepared."

Smal is reluctant to discuss individual players as he does not want to say anything that might upset one of the Irish squad, but there seems little risk of him being disappointed in his hope of seeing a sizeable Irish contingent among the Lions.

In more general terms while he recognises the physical challenge involved in playing the Springboks, "They have big, powerful players and you have to be able to cope with that," it will not be sufficient to concentrate simply on the physical side. "You have to go for a mix. You need the whole range of skills and abilities if you're going to play the rugby for which the Lions are famous."

He leaves no doubt of the extent of the task facing Ian McGeechan's elite tourists. "South Africa have a very strong squad at the moment, with a huge amount of quality and experience. Of the squad we had at the World Cup only Os du Randt and Percy Montgomery retired. The rest have stayed around and had a couple more years of experience. They've been playing together for quite a while and understand each other very well."

There is also plenty of emergent youthful talent, but Smal reckons, "They'll stick with the experienced players."

Looking towards the series, he said, "For the Lions, I think the best that they will be able to do is to win one Test. I think it will be one hell of a battle and it will be very close, but it will be tough for the Lions. South African rugby is in a very good place at the moment."

Other observers may differ from that, but supporters of both sides will agree with his prediction for this summer's showpiece. "I think it should be a fantastic series and I'm really looking forward to it."

Gert Smal was speaking at an HSBC Lions event in Leicester. HSBC is principal partner and shirt sponsor of the British and Irish lions Tour to South Africa.

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