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Durban – Franco Smith’s telling use of his substitutions last week has the Sharks guessing ahead of their Currie Cup semi-final against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

The Free State coach, who will be leaving to take up the position of head coach of the Italy national team at the end of the South African season, was often used as an impact substitute during his stint with the Springboks as a player.

Playing for coach Nick Mallett in the team captained by Gary Teichmann during what at the time was a record equalling run of 17 successive wins between the end of 1997 and 1998, Smith was part of a ploy that at the time was seen as quite revolutionary. The utility back, loose-forward Bob Skinstad and front-ranker Ollie le Roux would come onto the field in the second half and lift the tempo of the game, often with quite dramatic effect.

They played strong roles in one of the most memorable Springbok fightbacks of that era, which was the come-from-behind win over the All Blacks in Durban in 1998. The Boks were trailing 23-5 in the Tri-Nations fixture as they headed towards the last quarter, but came back to score a thrilling 24-23 win.

That was an 18 point difference, three less than what his Cheetahs team faced at two different stages of the final Currie Cup league game against Western Province in Bloemfontein last weekend. Of course, substitutions are a more common-place part of rugby now, and there is accuracy to the claim that it is no longer a 15 player per team sport, but a sport contested by 23-man teams.

But Smith was more adventurous with his team selection last week than even most modern coaches are, with ace-scrummagers Ox Nche and Aranos Coetzee selected on the bench, as well as regular starting flyhalf Louis Fouche and Jasper Wiese.

All those players played strong roles in the Cheetahs fightback from a seemingly impossible position (they were 33-12 down early in the second half) to eventually win 38-33 – in other words, 26 unanswered points in the last half an hour of the game.

The selection was in keeping with something that Smith said to me in a book interview I did with him in Bloemfontein earlier in the year.

“Playing impact sub for the Springboks during that winning run under Nick Mallett had a big impact on how I saw the game, and even now, as a coach, I have the view that there are times when you have your best players playing at the end of the game rather than starting,” said Smith.

It was also in keeping with the ploy used when Rassie Erasmus was head coach and Smith was an assistant coach for a memorable Currie Cup final win over the Blue Bulls in 2005, a game perhaps as much remembered for the rolling front-row substitutions on the Cheetahs side as Meyer Bosman’s winning try.

Obviously the Currie Cup league decider, that saw the Cheetahs jump from third to first on the log, was one of those times. And it appeared to work, with Nche in particular completely changing the momentum of what until his introduction about a quarter of an hour before half-time had been a one-sided scrum battle, with everything going WP’s way.

But did it really work? The Sharks don’t appear too convinced, and you’d probably have to ask Smith if he was happy with his starting scrum unit conceding a slew of penalties that contributed heavily to the 12-0 lead that Province built up in no time at all through SP Marais’ place-kicking boot.

Nche’s introduction was too early in the game for it to be planned, and another team might not have allowed the Cheetahs back into the game. As Sharks prop Thomas du Toit has hinted in the build-up to Saturday’s semi-final, perhaps Smith will think twice before committing himself to the same selection again.

“I don’t know, maybe it was a substitution tactic, but I am not sure if they will be very happy with the way it worked out for them,” said Du Toit.

“I am not too sure if they will do the same thing again against us. If they do we will just have to handle it and adapt. Whatever team they select we will not be underestimating them. Ox is a brilliant scrummager and they have a very strong front row.”

What Du Toit is sure of though is that there is something special happening within the Cheetahs team and he saw enough from them in reviewing their win over Province to know that his own team faces a tough challenge.

“You have to have something going for you if you are 21 points down in a game and you come back to win it,” he said.

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