Written 2 May 2016
The Lions went down before the fury of a Hurricanes team with all elements meshing into an engine of roaring power. 36-5 at halftime meant the weather had come and gone for the home team. The wind was over; now only a deadly calm settled on the silent Lions supporters at Ellis Park. A better-prepared, better-drilled, better-focused and better-motivated side from Wellington thrashed a bewildered and bemused home team. It was breathtakingly shocking for those who had come to celebrate another fine performance by a gifted Lions outfit. It was not to happen.
Outplayed in all departments of the game, the Lions clung on with blunted claws until the end but the quarry had long since disappeared over the horizon. Before the match we had to listen to the usual crap about ‘the front five’ and how they would determine the outcome of the match. As it happened, there were only fourteen scrums in the entire match – on a beach masquerading as a rugby field - and not one a ‘heel against the head’. Well if the ball is put in under the locks’ feet it’s hard to get at. It’s become so absurd that I gasped as Ross Cronje of the Lions appeared to put a ball into a scrum ‘relatively’ straight – whatever that means.
In any event, the ‘front five’ played no significant role in victory for the Hurricanes or in defeat for the Lions. On the whole, the Hurricanes were superior in all phases of play. The game was won by two things: superb and overwhelming superiority in broken play. Ahti Savea, Shields and Vito were all over the place; quicker to the breakdown and more efficient in clearing the ball. After fifteen minutes I found myself asking, “Where is Jaco Kriel?” His name had yet to be mentioned.
The other area of complete domination was the lineout where two quick throw-ins led to tries. The Lions had been bludgeoned into passivity and desperation. Apart from a much more vigorous and determined attacking approach, the visitors bristled with skill and bravura. They threw the ball about with accuracy and purpose. What a pleasure to watch.
After the famed ‘Super Sport Analysts’ had stressed again that the match would be won ‘up front’, I never heard them mention this factor again. They had parroted it out much like one who has been taught to learn by rote and then repeat on cue some arcane religious creed, without conviction or, indeed, apprehension. This rubbish is routinely dished out weekly. What are they thinking? Or, are they thinking?
Every follower of this great game knows that scrums form an important part of the arsenal. But as there were only fourteen scrums in this match, why overrate its significance? Some psychological advantages may be gained but it’s a part of the game over-coached while backs are relatively ignored. On rare occasions, the scrum, properly performed, can turn a game on its head as we saw later on Saturday evening. But these occasions are just that: rare.
By the time halftime was whistled, the Lions were down 35-6. It was desperately disappointing for the locals, who had come to support their heroes. After the interval, there was more focus and purpose from the home side. But the horse had long since bolted and now vain attempts were made to close the door. Apart from a performance of comparative lethargy in the first half, what let the stallion gallop away were two intercepted passes courtesy of Whiteley and Jantjes. Inexcusably slack. Final score: Hurricanes 50 – Lions 17.
The Stormers gave away their match against the Waratahs. With only four minutes to go and two points ahead, a scrum was awarded to the home side five metres from the tryline. Did anyone, captain or senior player, realise the vital importance of this scrum? It didn’t look like it. What was captain de Jong thinking? Was he thinking? Did it occur to him that leadership now was essential to retain the lead? No. He stood there as the others did, not giving a thought to the obvious reality that the Waratahs were in desperate straits and clearly going to make a massive effort to gain possession ‘against the head’. Does anyone in the Stormers squad know how to ‘close down’ a game? Obviously not.
And so it turned out. A herculean effort from the Waratahs forwards, with a crucial second shove, brought them the ball and Hooper crashed over. It should never have happened. One lapse of leadership and comprehension of a vital moment and defeat was snatched, as the cliché goes, from the jaws of victory. Is de Jong really a captain? Is he coached as a captain?
Two readers of this column, wrote to ask why I failed to mention the great victory by the Sharks over the Highlanders last week. Fair question. But I had what readers of ST Coleridge know as a ‘Porlock Moment’. The story goes that, in about 1814, as the philosopher/poet Coleridge, perhaps on opium, was writing one of his magical masterpieces, ‘Kubla Khan’, he reached the line ‘And drink the milk of paradise’, when there was a knock at the door and, distracted, Coleridge opened it to find a man from Porlock enquiring about some business proposition. By the time the poet returned to his desk to complete the poem, the inspiration had gone.
Last week, as I was trying to clear my mind about the political intervention into ‘transformation in rugby’, and ready to write about the Sharks victory over the Highlanders, the doorbell rang and it was the local broom-seller, trying to persuade me to buy yet another of his wares. I refused the offer as politely as I could under the circumstances, returned to my desk and the Sharks match had been erased from my thinking.
So, to put matters right, I now remember how I have been severely critical of the Sharks performances at home – dull, predictable, lethargic strategies and skills. But, against the Highlanders in NZ, the Sharks seemed transformed. They have always been strong on defence but this time they ran the ball off the turnovers and fully deserved a memorable win. Their performance against the Chiefs was even more impressive and they lost only because of indiscipline. Great pity.
In passing, whenever a turnover ball is kicked away, my groans are so loud, the neighbours complain. What are these highly paid players doing with ball won in broken play? The routine tactic is to run the bloody thing. Why kick it away? It’s insensible. Most tactical kicking remains in all teams, lamentable. Who thought up ‘grubbers’ into touch? Giving away ball to ‘gain’ ten metres and lose possession?
On the transformation issue, I ask, “If Craven Week is overflowing with black players, where are they? Who is tracking them?” It appears to be no one, least of all the minister’s sports department.
P.S. A reader wrote to ask what ‘qualified’ me to write a rugby blog. He is much younger than I – as most people seem to be these days. Well, for those who may be interested, here are a few items from my 25 year career in the great game.
1. Aged 8, fullback for De La Salle College Under 11.
2. First XV for St. Andrew’s Prep, Grahamstown – 1949 and 1950 flyhalf : in the team, Ed Stafford and Michael Beamish at centre, Wally Kitcat and David van Coller at scrumhalf; Chris Stone at lock, to mention a few.
3. Selborne College 3rd XV 1952; 2nd XV 1953 ; flyhalf (two matches for the Ist XV.)
4. Rhodes University : 1954 - Under 19 B flyhalf and vice-captain; 1955 - Under 19A flyhalf and vice-captain; captain Bill Yeowart at hooker.
5. Rhodes University: 1956/7/8: Ist XV: flyhalf and captain in 1958.
6. Victoria Sports Club team: 1959 - 1966 : flyhalf and captain.
7. Midlands Province, Rhodesia: 1959 - 1966: flyhalf and captain: won the Interprovincial four times in seven years.
8. Rhodesia National team: 1959 - 1970 with two years out owing to travel fatigue.
9. Combined Transvaal/Rhodesia team vs Northern Transvaal: 1960 at Springs.
10. Rhodes University and Eastern Province: 1964 at flyhalf.
11. Retired after 1970 season aged 33.