Franco Smith: Glasgow Warriors coach speaks on Gregor Townsend, South Africa and Bill McLaren

Franco Smith’s debut for South Africa was a happy enough affair as he came off the bench to score a try in a 68-10 rout of Scotland. What made that day back in 1997 all the more pleasurable for the new Glasgow head coach was knowing that Bill McLaren was commentating on his efforts.

New Glasgow Warriors head coach Franco Smith.
New Glasgow Warriors head coach Franco Smith.

Speaking at Scotstoun last week shortly after his appointment was announced, Smith, now 50, revealed that he had kept tapes of that match and others so he could listen back to the revered Scot’s description of proceedings. Even now, he feels proud to have been associated, however tangentially, with the legendary broadcaster.

“It was a fantastic period of my rugby career – and even more special when Bill McLaren was commentating on it,” he said. “I really enjoyed that game specifically, and it was an important part of South African rugby and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

“I scored a try in that game and sometimes when you need a bit of inspiration and you’ve gone through troubled times in your own career then it’s good to look for something to just give you that little bit of a push and that motivation again. That was one of the moments that I’ll always cherish and remember.

“As a young kid all the Five Nations games were broadcast in South Africa and it was always good to hear these type of voices on the television. To then score a try when Bill was commentating was special.”

That match may have been Smith’s first involvement with Scottish rugby, but it began a long and very helpful friendship with the man he found himself lining up against – Gregor Townsend, the Scotland coach who of course was one of the South African’s predecessors with the Warriors.

“Gregor and I have competed a lot,” Smith continued. “He was the fly-half in that game I played in, and since then we’ve followed each other’s career. We’ve got friendly with each other over the years at all those events where we got to meet each other. We’ve kept in contact.

“I followed him when he was at Glasgow. We have similar styles. He’s done a great job here in Scotland – I think he brought a very important mindset to what Scottish rugby is about.”

That mindset, aided by a few special talents such as Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, helped the Warriors to the PRO12 title back in 2015. They have since fallen some way from that lofty level, and Smith, who is moving to Scotstoun from his position as Italian Rugby’s head of high performance, is well aware of how difficult it will be for them to get back there, especially now that four very strong South African sides have part of the URC.

“It’s going to be tough,” he admitted. “We talk about Leinster – that’s still this side of the Equator. We have four very difficult sides [in South Africa] that we have to go and play against. The benefit is that I at least know them very well, but no, the competition standard has obviously gone up with the addition of the South Africans.

“It’s going to be very tough. I realise that. Therefore a bit of patience from everybody here will be important. We need to make a big step up physically and mentally.”