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Franco Smith: FNB Varsity Cup is an unbelievable competition

Former FNB UFS Shimlas coach Franco Smith has fond memories of his successful FNB Varsity Cup stint in 2015.

Smith coached Benetton Treviso in Italy from 2007 to 2013, before returning to Bloemfontein in early 2014 to become backline coach of the Free State Cheetahs. He was also appointed head coach of Shimlas for the 2015 FNB Varsity Cup.

“The opportunity to coach Shimlas was the perfect one for me,” Smith tells “I tried to marry my Super Rugby and European rugby experiences and presented it to a bunch of young South African players in a high-quality competition.

The players bought into the new way of doing things, which was reflected in the way we played and the results we achieved.”

In 2014, FNB UFS Shimlas finished fifth on the FNB Varsity Cup log, with three wins from seven matches. Under Smith in 2015, they won six of their seven league matches (with one draw) to finish second on the log (behind FNB UP-Tuks on points difference).

They then beat FNB UCT Ikeys 21-10 in their home semi-final and pummelled FNB NWU Pukke 63-33 in the final at Shimla Park – scoring nine tries – to lift the FNB Varsity Cup for the first time.

So what was the secret to their success that season?

“The buy-in from all the players and coaches was very important,” says Smith, who earned nine Test caps for the Springboks as a flyhalf and inside centre.

“We were clear in how we wanted to play. We wanted to play a winning brand of rugby and an entertaining brand of rugby. We wanted to score lots of tries and fill Shimla Park.

“We were innovative and creative in how we went about things, which is why I think the score in the final was so high. The players really played for each other that season, enjoyed the environment we created and respected the jersey.”

Smith says there were two decisive moments in their 2015 campaign, against the FNB Madibaz in Round 5 and the reigning champions FNB UCT a week later.

“We only kicked one penalty goal in the whole tournament and that was in the last minute of our match against the Madibaz in Port Elizabeth [which Shimlas won 23-21].

It was an important result because we didn’t play well but still found a way to win. It also allowed us to remain unbeaten in the competition, which boosted the players’ confidence.

“The second decisive moment was when we beat Ikeys [44-24] in Bloemfontein. That win came at the right time, in the middle of the competition, when our structures were falling into place. The players took great heart from it and realised then what hard work and belief could achieve.”

A month after winning the FNB Varsity Cup, Smith was appointed head coach of the Cheetahs. He later became the union’s director of rugby, while also serving as the Springboks’ attack and skills coach under Rassie Erasmus.

In 2018, Smith returned to the Cheetahs’ head coach role and they went on to win the Currie Cup in 2019. That was his Free State swansong as he joined the Italian national team as head coach shortly afterwards.

Smith says the FNB Varsity Cup played an “important role” in his coaching career.

“It’s an unbelievable competition,” he adds. “It was a great privilege and honour to be a part of it in 2015. The innovation, excitement and fearlessness the students brought to their game made it an unforgettable experience.

“It’s a very important platform for players, especially those who develop a bit later on,” he adds. “There are a lot of players out there who need an opportunity like what the Varsity Cup provides. They get to experience different coaching styles from what they had at school, while playing in a quality, televised competition brings out the best in them.

“The Varsity Cup is an integral part of South African rugby.”

– This is the sixth instalment in a series of FNB Varsity Cup Changing Lives articles focusing on those whose lives were forever changed by Rugby That Rocks.



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