The recent victory against the All Blacks was a great way to end the Rugby Championship, but with the euphoria still permeating the air, I cannot hide that uneasy feeling that I have had for some time now. Is South African rugby as healthy as we all think (or wish) it is? The United Rugby Championship was supposed to confirm our status as a leading rugby country, but the first three weeks did nothing to allay my fears. I can hear you say:” What is your problem? Over the past weekend we had two wins, a draw and a narrow loss!”
The way in which we lost those first few matches was a cause for concern but let me be that person. The one that says the way in which we won a few games up to now was also not that comforting. Why am I concerned for SA rugby? Why do I think we are still in trouble?
Does one knitting pattern really suit all teams in this country?
I am the first person to acknowledge that winning rugby is all that matters. This statement is not critique on the game plan that we have become known for, but rather a focus on the peripherals that is necessary to play all- round rugby. I am not convinced that it is necessary for all franchises and provincial teams and even schools in the country to play the same game plan. I am a great believer in playing to your strengths in the team and building your game plan around that. The other side of that coin is that, should you decide to enforce a game plan, select players suited to that plan. There is an old joke about the South African Police that set out to capture a crocodile. They caught a lizard instead and tortured it until it admitted to being a crocodile! It does not work with rugby players unfortunately. I am going to use just one example- you opt for a kicking game and the scrumhalf best suited to that game is not in the game day squad. My point is that there is enough preparation time before test matches to drill your chosen game plan into the squad. Let franchises and coaches do their own thing and play around their strengths. If we don’t allow that, we might never again see game breakers like Danie Gerber in Bok squads.
Where are the Springboks between tests?
It was interesting to see that most All Blacks were back in action in the round of Bunnings NPC matches played this past weekend. England players all returned to their squads in the Gallagher Premiership matches, as did most other international players. Covid protocol aside, as well as the fact that a lot of Boks play overseas, where are the Boks in the URC series? Surely the Sharks can do with Mapimpi and Nkosi? Jantjes will likewise strengthen a Stormer side considerably. I don’t believe in mothballing players. I don’t believe in treating them like brittle little teacups. Let them play and remain match fit, and battle hardened. Player management should be handled by franchise coaches, with some guidelines from SARU.
Are our supporters forcing us to ignore the future?
South African supporters are notoriously bad losers. It places a lot of pressure on teams to keep on winning. That is why Jake White has roped in so many players over 30 to help him win the Currie Cup and do well in the URC. That is why so few youngsters are blooded in the Bok team. Whilst it will keep us sort of winning, it is not good for future planning. We want to beat the All Blacks, so we keep on playing World Cup winners like Willie le Roux, in spite of a serious form slump. It is my belief that Fassi is the future at 15, and in order for him to shine at the next World Cup, he needs to have 15 caps under the belt by then. And a cap is not the last seven minutes of the game. We need to take a serious look at the players that will be there for the World Cup and build a new team around them. Jake White did something similar in the build up to 2007. The only difference is that there was constant communication with supporters to explain the end goal.
We will lose a few games along the way, but we will be prepared for the World Cup. I believe France and New Zeeland are getting it right. England and South Africa on the other hand like to hang on to players right past their sell- by date. Franchises are doing the same thing. There just has to be young, strong and exciting props in the Lions Franchise. Is the money paid for Jannie du Plessis worth the 35 minutes every second or third game? If his experience is so vital, pull him in as the scrum coach. Or even the team doctor. After all, Rassie was a water boy once or twice remember? Same argument can be used for Jaco Kriel, or Combrinck in the Bulls team for that matter. All great players, all on the wrong side of 30, all past their best. Brutal maybe, but professional rugby is a brutal sport.
Rugby is a game of skills
We have some of the best conditions to play rugby in in the world. We have firm, green fields for most of the year(Kimberley being an exception of course), and we play in a beautiful mild winter climate. Compare that to often bitterly cold and muddy New Zeeland conditions, or incessant rain and cold in Europe. We should be the most skillful players in the world, but we are not. It starts with schoolboy rugby where coaches are under so much pressure to win that any adventurous play is outlawed. There is the obsession with size, the one dimensional setting up of phases and crash ball rugby. Very little time is spent on basic skills. This disease is carried into senior rugby from clubs right into franchises.
We totally neglect handling. Most backs can still not kick with both feet. A lot of players can not catch the high ball. We still can only pass with two hands, often in one direction only, and it has to be at the right height, or it becomes an unsympathetic pass. Not true- it is because a lot of players just do not have the ability to catch a ball at high speed. One thing that truly annoys me is that commentators and social media pundits often look for excuses on their behalf. My number one annoyance is commentators casually excusing poor handling with: “It is a bit greasy out there, the ball must be very slippery” Most of them are old enough to know that a wet leather ball is slippery and heavy. Not the high- tech balls that they play with today.
My second favourite is: “He definitely did not expect the ball.” It is like a boxing commentator remarking that the opponent definitely did not expect to be hit! The main objective of Rugby is still to get hold of the ball and place it in the opponents goal area. It stands to reason then that everyone on the field should always expect the ball.
Speed and momentum go hand in hand. A 110kg prop at full speed must be more difficult to stop than one walking. We get a few things wrong here. First thing is standing starts around the fringes, it is ineffective and easy to stop. Secondly, and most annoyingly, is that props spend so much time in the gym and leaning on the scrumming machine that they can only lumber around on the field. In contrast, most other tight forwards in the world are becoming more and more athletic by the day, without ignoring their primary tasks.
The whole world has become so player safety conscious that it sometimes borders on the ridiculous. But coaches on all levels keep on ignoring the fact that the tackler is injured more often than the person being tackled. It is just plain poor technique. Watch any coach at junior level, tackling bags are always stationary and being tackled head on. That is probably the easiest tackle to make. But look at the number of times the defender on cover defense gets his head on the wrong side of the tackle. It is simply ignored in training. I have often seen that skills are ignored on primary school level, due the fact that playing the biggest boy at flyhalf wins most matches. High School coaches make the incorrect assumption that they are getting skilled players, and they immediately start with game plan and tactics. And so it goes on and on. I have seen many a club scrumhalf that can only pass to one side. Full Backs that can only kick with one foot. Centers that can only catch the perfect ball. And please do not leave a kick- off to a prop. They are just there to lift the catcher remember? In days gone by any player could catch, run and kick. What on earth went wrong?
Rugby is an evolving game.
Currently my biggest concern is the huge gap between South African players and overseas players. Everybody was ecstatic about the sublime Am pass last weekend. Fact is, it has become a standard pass in most Gallagher Premiership games. But mostly that type of adventurous play is frowned upon in conservative SA. We play winning rugby.
I have done a little exercise over the weekend, by counting passes made by various teams in one move. Most of the time there will be a standard pass from nine to ten, some pass to the next player, offload in the tackle, pass from the ground, offload in the tackle, overhead pass to the next player, under- arm pass to the next player and score. In stark contrast to that, SA teams go nine to ten, ten to 12, head down, contact. Next phase. Pop pass to a walking prop, huge tackle on him, lose the ball forward.
Kick passes are getting more and more popular. So is the little chip over the rush defense, or the rolling kick. Back lines use dummy runners, flanks as shields, skip passes, loop around and double up passes. It all creates space, and confusion amongst a well drilled man on man shift defense pattern.
I believe we can still use our superior forwards effectively, but we are far to one dimensional in the attack. Come on coaches, coach some skills and adventure. I am not saying play touch rugby but move the ball around. Let’s catch up with our opponents.
Are we ignoring mental preparation?
In all our greatest years of Super Rugby and World Cups, and even Currie Cup wins, sport psychology played a huge role in the process. Players are young, alone and super rich. There is social pressure, pressure to compete for positions, pressure to keep supporters happy and even worse, huge emotional stress after serious injuries. Please SA, lets look after our boys. I look at my favourite SA Franchise, (Lions of course) and week after week my heart goes out to them. They are all great players. They al have massive potential. The team might have a bit of a problem on the coaching side, but hopefully that will be fixed soon. But- I look at their eyes and body language on the field. This is a team that is beaten before they run on the field. That self- belief, almost arrogance of a confident player is just not there. This is one team that certainly does not need more coaches, they need a great sport psychologist. And there are more teams out there that can certainly do with the same.
Bureaucracy- is it a game killer?
Boardroom issues often manifest themselves in the playing team. It must be difficult for a Stormers or Western province player to have total belief in rugby as a career when you look at the issues in their management. I have not met a single Lions Supporter this year that is not baying for the head of the coach, but Lions Management actually behaves as if supporters do not matter. Irrational player purchases are made, and downright idiotic player sales are allowed. Boardrooms can kill teams. Boardrooms can chase spectators away. Administrators that are in positions for themselves first, and secondly for the sake of rugby do not belong in those boardrooms.
On the other hand, look at how happy the Bulls are. Great decisions, great communication, great coaching team- success on the field. It Is not as if there is not a recipe for success. It is just ignored by selfish, self- centered officials.
Is rugby a 15 man or 23 man game?
I am the first one to admit there is place for substitutes. I am not on the Eddie Jones bandwagon that wants to ban tactical substitutions. But I plead with coaches to use these guys wisely. I sometimes wish I can listen in on coaches and their runners on the field. Or even better, listen to the coaching team when they make these decisions. Perhaps I will then understand why:
A whole front row is replaced with one minute left to half time.
A hooker is brought on to replace a hooker with a 100% line out record, just before a very important defensive line out on their five-meter line.
And then on the other hand I cannot fathom why a player who is clearly out of sorts is kept on the field for 70 agonizing minutes before being replaced. Rugby is a professional sport. If a player makes the team because he is the best in his position, and he under- performs, he should be professional enough to understand why he is being replaced.
My favourite one is that sub with 40 seconds on the clock. Are we just giving caps away? It makes no sense at all.
If a player is coached well, and fit, he should be able to play for 80 minutes. If such a player is having an outstanding day, why sub him just for the sake of substitution?
Please coaches, give us some insight here. We as fans ask these questions, and I believe we are entitled to get intelligent responses.
Currie Cup for the sake of Currie Cup?
I am one for tradition. I cry almost every time I watch the documentary on Newlands. I have no idea how I will handle it the day it makes business sense to move away from Ellispark. I was annoyed when a club with the history of Diggers was allowed to be relegated to second league for years. Tradition has a place in life, and certainly in rugby. But maybe we should be sensible as well. We should not have a Currie Cup competition just because it is the oldest competition in the world. With all due respect to the players, but I have seen players being capped in Currie Cup this year that is barely good enough for a club first team.
I believe that SARU must be focused on finding a slot in the calendar where the Currie Cup can be played with the best players in the country. Springboks included. It must be worthy of the epic matches played in the seventies, eighties and nineties. Do no cancel it outright, but just do not have it in a year where it is not a first tier competition.
Fringe Competitions- a money gobbler or necessity?
The pot of contracted players must be managed a lot better if we are to grow the sport to the next level in South Africa. We should have fringe competitions where the lower level players get the opportunity to perform in front of spectators, but on their peer level. I know great players who never played a game for Transvaal but were proud members of the Rooibokke team. Please bring back the days where two provinces competed on one day in schools, under age and B- team matches before the heroes have their match. Talent is not spotted in the gym, or on the training ground. It is spotted on the playing field. A player just cannot play for a franchise, and then wait for five weeks before the next opportunity to play comes around. Club rugby must be strengthened with these player if necessary.
In summary I can just say that of course I am a passionate supporter of SA rugby on all levels. Of course, I believe that no team ever runs on to the pitch to lose. I was jubilant with thousands of people when we beat the All Blacks. But there are those sobering moments when our Currie Cup champions are outclassed by an overseas team. Or those embarrassing moments when your team is playing against an overseas team and a wise and knowledgeable commentator keeps on referring to our attack as outdated and one dimensional. Or mentions more than once that with defence plans like ours, we will continue to leak tries in this competition.
All I am saying here is that our players, coaches, administrators, and everyone involved in our beloved sport should go back to being students of the game, learn from the best and take our game into the future. We have the structures, the funding, the talent and the support to do so.
Take a leaf from the Blitzbok Book of success. Evolving game plans, attack innovation, defense structures that adapt to opponents, succession planning, mental health and talent scouting are the ingredients that makes them probably the most beloved and followed sporting team in South Africa. And earned them the respect in the rest of the world. There is a next level in rugby, I am merely asking our people to get us there as soon as possible.