GLASGOW'S BIGGEST ASSET: The mastermind that is Franco Smith

rugby20 June 2024 08:05| © SuperSport
By:Brenden Nel
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© SuperSport

To say that Franco Smith has a deep knowledge of Loftus Versfeld would be an understatement.

After all, the well-travelled coach made his name on the same turf that the Vodacom United Rugby Championship will be played on this weekend.

Smith arrived back in 1998 as a young upstart who had impressed at Griquas, but his partnership with Joost van der Westhuizen back then blossomed, so much so that he quickly became a Springbok, playing nine tests for the Green and Gold.

As a coach Smith was part of Rassie Erasmus’ famous 2005 Currie Cup shock when Meyer Bosman’s late try gave the Bloemfontein side an unlikely victory against Heyneke Meyer’s strong Bulls side.

And more than once, when he returned to coach the Cheetahs, Smith found success at the Pretoria ground that has eluded many.

So this weekend as he stands on the precipice of a unique treble - having won the Currie Cup and Varsity Cup during his coaching in South Africa, the Bulls face a formidable foe. Smith is an astute coach who is building a Glasgow superpower, and has the Bulls firmly now in his sights to try and claim some silverware for Glasgow

“We didn’t train this hard and work this hard to come up short,” he said ahead of the Loftus Versfeld final, where the Bulls will start as favourites.

“We’re going to give it a full go.”


Despite the altitude, home ground and travel factor advantages, Smith is relishing the challenge of facing the Bulls a few weeks after they narrowly lost 40-34 at the same venue in regulation play.

“In this competition, travel forms part of the challenge,” Smith explained, rejecting worries over the trip Glasgow had to make.

“We know that it is going to be challenging but we’ve got a plan and we’ll see how we can recover as quickly as possible and get ourselves physically and mentally ready for an important game.”

Smith knows the challenges are real and knows just how much pride there is in the Bulls game to get on top. But after shaping Italy’s resurgence as a top rugby nation, first as national coach and then as high performance director, he has a wealth of knowledge that may just make a difference this weekend.

But first his priority is to ensure that Glasgow makes the most of the challenge. After being parachuted into the job last year he took them on a 10-game winning streak, culminating with the EPCR Challenge Cup final, one that they were outclassed by Toulon in Dublin in.

The growth has been impressive, and despite some setbacks, the Warriors have re-established themselves as one of the top teams in the URC and genuine title contenders, culminating with their epic win over Munster last weekend in the semifinal, a game nobody gave them a chance of winning.


Smith has been juggling the various challenges well, and spoke to Supersport about the journey that his team are currently on.

“We started last year and the idea was to create the right culture and to bring young Scottish players through to make them the best that they can be. Obviously I came from a performance director and a national head coach perspective in the club so the idea was always to set the standards really really high when they needed it,” he explained.

“Those were the objectives. Last year we won a lot of games - 10 in a row - and that created a lot of expectations. A lot of my time last year went into managing those expectations. We have a lot of players that became available for Scotland and with the World Cup and Six Nations it wasn’t ideal and their involvement in Scottish rugby came at an important time for us as well. It was in the middle of the Champions Cup campaign.

“There were a lot of challenges this season, trying to keep the enthusiasm and creativity, blend in the younger players and use as many of the squad as possible, because it is now a fact that you need more than 40 players to be competitive in both competitions. If that is the dream to be competitive in both competitions and to win some silverware at the back end - that is the dream of all coaching programmes.

“We’ve seen growth, we’ve seen player development, we’ve seen established players getting better and applying themselves at test level. The competition in the squad has grown. The young academy boys have stepped up and four or five of them have made their debuts this season.

“There is a good platform established around the club in general. Again it is not only the rugby growth, but holistic growth that is important to me. We try to make rugby heroes in Glasgow. Rangers and Celtic dominate the culture in Glasgow and with the help of the club, the management, and the players to bring a different culture and a different hero to the city, is important.

“Yes we want to win and winning is important, but we have a bigger plan to influence people’s lives in the best way we can.”


There is still a big affinity for his former team, and Smith is all too familiar with the setting at Loftus Versfeld, and likes to remind those who will listen that the South African teams have it pretty good when it comes to training facilities and the existential impact it has on their play.

As in real estate, location is everything, and Loftus Versfeld is perfectly suited for a high-performance environment that produces exceptional rugby players.

That’s why, in his opinion, it is so difficult for sides to win at the Pretoria side’s home ground.

“I’ve played there as well and know how much pride goes into that jersey and how much has been done lately to get that pride back into that jersey. But I do feel the last two, three years since Remgro got involved and Patrice Motsepe, there is obviously a massive shift and they have brought in some of the best Springbok players and some of the best young talent in the country. They train in an environment that is second to none,” he added.

“They train on hard fields, with a dry ball and unlike others, no training would ever be cancelled for the cold. It is always warm. The ball is always dry and the hard field helps with natural agility and skill. I know that from my time with the Cheetahs - the rapidness and agility that comes from that naturally just because you train on a hard field makes a difference.

“The ball travels a little further and the differences that you can bring to your game that are more challenging than in Europe. I definitely feel Loftus is the perfect environment to grow and develop talent.

“Therefore, to come here from the northern hemisphere is difficult. Everyone speaks about the Southern Hemisphere teams needing to adapt to the cold. I think for us as northern hemisphere teams the challenges of coming here are even more, not because of the altitude, but the fact that these teams train in these quality fields and they play all of their games in South Africa on these surfaces. All the teams train on quality pitches and aren’t challenged by the weather.”


Altitude plays a massive factor for Smith and his team this weekend and he isn’t about avoiding the challenge either. What he wants is to see his team embrace it and use it to their advantage, not sit around worrying about it.

“There are two ways to handle it. The previous one was not to talk about it. When I coached the Cheetahs I used to put up a poster on how high above sea level it is, and now at Loftus Versfeld there is a poster that says how high it is. To ignore the fact isn’t the best way.

“We had a good approach, we started a while ago, to look at certain things. We do what sky runners do and how they handle that. It isn’t our main focus. I looked at the game that Glasgow played two years ago and the guys scored a brilliant try from their own 22 metre area in the 78th minute.

“That means despite the highveld, we were still able to keep the ball through phases. For us it is not to think too much about not having the energy and equipment to play in the last game and to start and do as much as we can. Everybody gets tired, it is how quickly you recover that makes the difference.”

With all this in mind, the Bulls will know they have a game on their hands this weekend, and while short-term focus will be on this weekend’s match, Smith is taking Glasgow, and by implication, Scottish rugby, on an upward journey.

And in the process underlining his own credentials as a future Springbok coach. A master tactician, a driven coach with a holistic outlook, Smith is Glasgow’s biggest asset this week and shouldn’t be underestimated.