Franco Smith exclusive interview: 'Facing England is a huge challenge but we are not intimidated by it'

Mick Cleary
·6-min read
Italy's Head Coach Franco Smith (L) watches his players warm up during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, on October 24, 2020. - AFP
Italy's Head Coach Franco Smith (L) watches his players warm up during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, on October 24, 2020. - AFP

Franco Smith chuckles when it is pointed out to him that he could have spent this weekend celebrating the 12 month anniversary of South Africa’s World Cup triumph over England as part of Rassie Erasmus’ coaching staff rather than girding Italian loins to take on England in Rome, a mission that carries with it as much prospect of success as those poor souls long ago heading out to face the Lions in the Colosseum. Smith, a long-term coaching colleague of Erasmus, initially with the Cheetahs before coming into the Springbok management group two years ago, had decided to leave the ‘Boks in order to be close to his school-attending family in Bloemfontein rather than move to Cape Town to be alongside Erasmus. The Italy job only came on the horizon prior to the World Cup with Smith succeeding Conor O’Shea into the role after the tournament.

“Yes, quite a few friends have mentioned that I could have been part of that Springbok success and we’ve had a few laughs about the way things turned out,” said Smith from the Italian training camp at the Olympic centre at Giulio Onesti in Rome. “As a Christian, I believe things happen for a reason and I was delighted to get this chance to be involved in international rugby. My coaching philosophy has always revolved around trying to make a difference, getting 120 per cent out of a player’s ability, getting them to reach beyond themselves. That is exactly what we have to do against England on Saturday. Of course it is an enormous test and has long been so. Italian players don’t grow up in the same rugby environment as many other countries, where aggression and physicality on the field are second nature. That is what we have to develop, to try and nurture those traits from a very young age. It is a huge challenge but we are not intimidated by it. ”

Smith, 48, was an unheralded candidate to take over from O’Shea in that he does not have the profile of many of those who have been appointed to grapple with the taxing role of making the Azzurri victorious against Europe’s best in the Six Nations. Prior to O’Shea the likes of ex-All Black, John Kirwan and former Springbok, Nick Mallett, had taken on the onerous responsibility. Yet of all of them, Smith is perhaps best suited to the job in that he has a long-standing empathy with the country having first spent six months playing there as a teenager in 1994 before two more lengthy stints, first as a player and then as a coach at Benetton Treviso. Smith, a half-back or centre who won nine caps for the Springboks in the mid-to-late nineties, is wholly in tune with the needs of the Azzurri as well as versed in the often factional political backdrop of Italian rugby.

O’Shea was due to move upstairs and take on a director of rugby role only to accept an offer to return to England where he has responsibility for elite performance at the union. Smith is determined to stay focussed on the short-term needs of the Azzurri.

“It has to be about on-field performances first and foremost as they need to improve,” said Smith candidly, all too aware that it is impossible to sugar-coat Italy’s record in the Six Nations championship that has not seen a win in 26 tests stretching back to 2015. “Of course we know our reality but even though the mountain top looms above you, you cannot be daunted by the task of trying to find a way up that steep hill. That is one reason we have picked some young guys, like fly-half, Paolo Garbisi, who do not have the baggage of the past. You have to find a way to compete, to be strong in the fundamentals but also not to be afraid to think outside the box. That has so often been my experience, with Rassie and (current Springbok head coach) Jacques Nienaber, when we were all at the Cheetahs. The only players who came to us were those who couldn’t get contracts elsewhere. It was the same sort of thing at Benetton Treviso where you competed in Europe against the big, well-resourced sides. You have to punch above your weight. That is what we must do with Italy.”

Smith will bring all his talents to bear on the task, from his deep-rooted rugby knowledge picked up at his grandfather’s knee in the diamond mining town of Lichtenburg through to representative rugby on the parched fields of the former Free State and on to his travels in Italy.

“I’m a part-time historian so I love to know about other lands and cultures,” said Smith, a committed Christian who is much given to re-tweeting the thoughts of American pastor, Joel Osteen. “The tree started growing for me on that first six month trip to Italy. I do have my Christian beliefs although I don’t look to impose them on people but I do think it is right to try to influence in good ways if life gives you that platform.”

Italy head coach Franco Smith inspects the pitch before the 6 Nations match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 24, 2020. - PA
Italy head coach Franco Smith inspects the pitch before the 6 Nations match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 24, 2020. - PA

Smith insists that his project is to develop a 40-45 man squad that can take Italy through to the 2023 World Cup, ‘to shed the burden of the past and to earn the respect of the rugby world.’

It is a daunting prospect to face title-chasing England at the Stadio Olimpico only seven days after conceding 50 points to Ireland in Dublin.

“We have to be realistic in our objectives and focus on technical improvements in particular, in contact, at the line-out and in our line-speed,” said Smith. “You could argue that it is not a bad thing to blood young guys without the pressure of fans in the stadium but we would all rather that the crowds were there with all their passion. The Stadio Olimpico with its running track as well will be like playing in the middle of nowhere. But that is all part of the challenge. It is up to us to embrace and create our own memories.”