URC Grand Final: Bulls v Glasgow: old mentor Nick Mallett on why Franco Smith and Warriors works so well

Former Italy and Springboks coach worries that missing backs could prove costly for the Bulls

Franco Smith's coaching style does not suit everyone but the Glasgow Warriors squad have bought in wholeheartedly. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Franco Smith's coaching style does not suit everyone but the Glasgow Warriors squad have bought in wholeheartedly. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THAT Franco Smith did not have a happy time as head coach of Italy is not news to anyone. He was a disciplinarian, berating players if they had so much as a second helping of dessert. So when Kieran Crowley took over, several Italian players celebrated by posting pictures of Tiramisu on social media, garnished with an Italian Tricolore.

Fast forward a few years and I bump into a former Glasgow player who had been invited back into Scotstoun to meet the current Warriors squad who are thriving under Smith. He explained the dynamic thus: “Franco loves the players and the players love him right back!”

How, I ask Nick Mallett, can the same coach fall on his face in one environment before knocking it out the park in another?

“I would say the timing is really important from a coaching perspective,” replies the former Springboks player and coach. “You have to have enough experienced players in the team and guys who can play at the level that you are trying to compete at, then you can do things with the team.”

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“I think when Franco had the Italian side the average age was very young, 22 or 23, he was trying to build experience and he was trying to play an attractive, attacking game. They [Italy] can play it now but at that time they were probably too young, made a few mistakes and leaked a few big scores.

“The difference with Glasgow is that he has experience, players like Zander Fagerson and his brother Matt, and Sione Tuipulotu in the centre and Kyle Steyn and Sebastian Cancelliere, he has players there who are very experienced, they have won at the top level and that makes a huge difference.

“He has always been a good coach, hard-working, a back who still understands the importance of forward play, he doesn’t coach touch rugby! I think Glasgow have done fantastically under him.”

Mallett is a fascinating character. A South African who, like Smith, also coached Italy, impressing everyone by speaking the native language at his first press conference, if a little imperfectly.

The two Saffas go back a long way because it was Mallett who handed Smith his first ever South African cap, coming off the bench at stand-off when the Springboks thumped Scotland 68-10 at Murrayfield. Gregor Townsend was playing 10 for the hosts that day so the two future coaches will have gone head to head before the Scot was subbed off.

Mallett remains an avid follower of the game and, like almost everyone else in the Republic, he was hugely impressed by the Bulls victory over a Leinster side that looks a lot like Ireland with a couple of injuries; especially one area of the home team’s game.

“The Bulls tightened up their defence against Leinster,” says Mallett. “It was a very committed performance, especially in the last 10 mins when a converted try from Leinster would still have won them the game. They showed tremendous attitude and fight which reminded me of the Springboks.

“They have improved in other areas, too. Their front row is very powerful. Wilco Louw is one of the best tightheads in the world, Gerhard Steenekamp at loosehead  is very good and they have several outstanding hookers. Now the Bulls are winning scrum penalties rather than conceding them, which has made them very dangerous.”



Mallett is a little less effusive about the Bulls’ backline; not that it is bad, he wants to point out, just that it may well be missing its three best operators: Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie are both injured and they could be joined by Willie Le Roux who failed an HIA after suffering a head knock against Leinster. Both teams will be announced at lunchtime tomorrow [Friday].

That’s a lot of talent missing and Le Roux, especially, would be a huge loss after his boot kept the Bulls in the right areas of the field for great swathes of that semi-final.

Mallett played No 8 himself and he has nothing but good things to say about Bulls’ youngster Cameron Hanekom, who picked up the man-of-the-match award last Saturday having turned 22 just last month.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do,” he says. “I think he is the real deal, he has a fantastic future ahead of him.

Time is running out so I cut to the chase. How do Glasgow go about beating the odds, the altitude, the crowd, oh, and the Vodacom Bulls come 5pm on Saturday evening?

“They have to front up against the physicality of the Bulls which is going to be very, very intense,” says Mallett who doesn’t do hyperbole. “The Bulls against Leinster were underdogs but they played with huge commitment and they are going to have to repeat that performance against Glasgow.

“If Glasgow don’t get front foot ball it will be really difficult for them because the Bulls will make a mess of every breakdown. There is a lot of physicality there.

“But Glasgow Warriors are a very physical team as well. The 10 [Tom Jordan] reminds me of Henry Honiball [the former Springbok fly-half]. He’s an incredibly physical player, he wins turnovers, he carries the ball, he tackles like a loose forward and he keeps the Glasgow team on the front foot, and George Horne is a great goal kicker.

“First the pack has to front up but if Glasgow get any ball on the front foot they have a devastating back line; Cancilliere is just brilliant and so is Kyle Steyn, while Tuipulotu is playing out of his skin at the moment.

“I think both teams surprised everyone with their performances last weekend. Glasgow Warriors beating Munster away was a staggering good performance and for the Bulls to win against a Leinster with a full complement of international players, that was a brilliant performance as well.

“It is going to be a cracking game, there is no doubt about it.”


  • Our friends at Base Scotland (owners of The Dukes Umbrella and Maison by Glaschu) are showing Saturday’s URC Grand Final at BAaD (Barras Art and Design) in their outdoor backyard area from 3pm. They are open from 12pm with food and drinks available. It’s on a table-booking/first-come-first-served basis so get there early or click HERE to secure your spot.
  • Please note that Saturday’s European Championship matches will be shown on the indoor screen.

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About Iain Morrison 151 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.