Written 11 May 2016
As i did not watch all the matches on television, I have a sketchy view of the quality of play overall.
Certainly, the highlights for me, were the great and hugely unexpected victory of the Sharks over the Hurricanes and the Highlanders win against the Chiefs. Both these results were largely unexpected, the former more so than the latter.
It seemed to me that the mental preparation of players is becoming more and more important as the competition progresses. By this time, most teams have a good idea of how other teams play in particular parts of the field on attack and defence. So new thinking is essential. The question the better coaches are asking each week is, "Given our solid defence and speed and guile on attack, how can we surprise them this week? What do we have up our sleeve to improve through the rest of the season?"
So, although practices will continue with emphasis on even more powerful and effective scrumming, more moves worked out for the lineouts, I expect more imagination from the backs. Passing must by this stage, be as near to perfect as ‘dammit’. Former Springbok flyhalf, Butch James argues that backline coaching must spend ‘at least 80% on passing’. Well of course, for the most part, that clearly doesn’t happen. Play comes to a halt more through inaccurate passing than any other feature.
One refers here to routine passing to the left and, even more so, to the right and even as important, drills (practised with the regular intensity of a professional golfer) to ensure no ball is lost ‘in the tackle’ by way of perfecting the ‘offload’. Too many receivers out wide are overrunning the pass. One understands the flat pass gives the wing an advantage so he can take it at full speed, but to anticipate too much leads to ‘forward passes’. In the match against the rampant Hurricanes of the week before, after some outstanding support- play by the Sharks, Jordaan crossed to dot down under the poles early on in the first half. But.....the TMO correctly ruled the pass to him had been forward. This is infuriating to any coach who pays attention to detail. (By the way, where is the famous Sonny Bill Williams, the best ‘off-loader’ in the game?) I miss him.
Creative thinking is the greatest skill any coach can possess. By the time he has reached ‘Super Eighteen’ status, all the fundamental requirements will be in place and fairly routine. He will have a good idea of ‘how to read a game’. But assessment of the other team’s methods, their possible weaknesses in certain areas and phases of play, have to be analysed with a fine-toothed comb.
This is clearly what Gary Gold and his Sharks fellow coaches did before their critically important match against a Hurricanes team which had swept the Lions away in a tornado of brilliant rugby the week before. The Sharks will have watched the attacking and, on the day, awe-inspiring performance by a rampant pack of forwards and a set of three-quarters who ran like Prussian cavalry over the fearful ranks of not-very-leonine infantry, who went to ground with little semblance of dignity. On the day, blunt claws and tails down lost the game for the hosts. OK, OK, it’s history now. The Lions will, I am sure, regroup and rethink.
As I watched the Sharks vs Hurricanes match, I found myself thinking of how, through really incisive thinking and planning, a ‘weaker’ team can beat a ‘stronger’ one. I certainly did not expect the Natal side to beat the Hurricanes. So I watched in amazement as the home side exhibited cast-iron defence and ran the ball with real thought and intelligent judgement. Esterhuysen was a one-man powerhouse; Jordaan has more confidence; le Roux, though still erratic at the back, joined the line with purpose. JP Pietersen is being used more and more as an impact player and his try was a beauty. The Sharks pack was heroic throughout and the du Preez twins in great form. The obvious conclusion is that the Hurricanes succumbed as successful teams do time and again when they are on a roll, by ‘not changing a thing’. It worked last week, so it must work again.
John Plumtree and Chris Boyd should know better. I was appalled by both their and their players inability to adapt to a new set of challenges on the field. Early in the match, it was clear the Sharks were not going to play ‘the same way as the Lions’. But, the Hurricanes failed to rethink their strategy, failed to analyse tactics to counter a tougher defensive oufit, and failed to ‘think their way out of trouble’. I watched in delighted amazement as the Sharks dominated a match few thought they could win. Wonderful Rugby!
I couldn’t help thinking back to the ‘sixties in Rhodesia, when I was still playing, to a particular match between Midlands and Mashonaland in the little mining town of Que Que. It was a ‘provincial’ encounter for the Russell Cup. As I drove along the dry river road from Umvuma to Que Que, I began thinking how we could beat the side from Salisbury and environs who had in their ranks seven national players, five of them behind the scrum. In the Midlands team, we had two who had represented Rhodesia – Richard Bright at scrumhalf and myself. (I was at the time, Midlands and Rhodesia captain.)
It occurred to me as I analysed our players against their opposite numbers – man-for-man - that two things were clear. 1. They would run the ball at every opportunity and 2. They will expect us to run at them with hopeful courage and spirit. So, our tactics had to be a ‘surprise’ and something they would find difficult to adapt to.
In the team talk I gave that day, I emphasised they could ‘outrun’ us if we allowed them to, so our backline tackling had to be water-tight. I also said we had to employ pressure which disrupted their predictable ‘pretty-boy’ rugby. So, I told our team, to the disappointment of my centres and wings, that I was going to kick ‘up-and-unders’ from every set piece high onto Peter Matkovich, their fullback, himself a national representative and a fine player. The kicks would also test their wings, whom I knew were not confident under the high ball. One might ask why kick to a good player like Matkovich and give away possession? Good question.
The answer I gave was that I thought our loose trio were better than theirs to the breakdown. We just ‘had to’ win every ‘loose ball’ encounter and then that ball won from broken play would be passed along the line every time. We would unsettle their patterns and find the gaps. (In my own mind, I was, too, thinking of employing the ‘drop’ whenever opportunity came.) Our forwards tackling had to be hard and brutal. I told them they would get to Matkovich before he jumped for the ball. We then had to snaffle the ball and run.
So the game see-sawed back and forth and we were brilliant in the loose. At halftime both sides had scored two tries but we were ahead because of a drop and penalty. In the second half, my ‘Garry Owens’ were accurate and Matkovich came under terrible pressure. As receivers could, in those ’medieval’ days, be tackled in the air, that’s what happened and Peter was carried off injured. I remember a tackle from one of our flanks, a miner called Boet Banninck, which sent Matkovich into orbit, and Mashonaland played the last twenty minutes with fourteen men. (Under today’s rules, Banninck would have been given a red card). We won comfortably.
We enjoyed our beers with the Mashonas after the game, they left in their bus for Salisbury and we, the Midlanders, handed in our scarlet jerseys, said our farewells and headed to our various homes in Gwelo, Shabani, Gutu and points further afield. I drove back to Fort Victoria along the dry river road and felt satisfied not so much by the unexpected victory, but because we had come up with a plan that was geared to the reality of the opposition, a neat analysis of how they would play, and the ability to stick to our game plan. The ‘weaker’ side won on the day. It doesn’t happen often, but when your thinking and hunches coincide and your players can believe and deliver, it’s great.
The Highlanders have only themselves to blame for their ‘topsy-turvy’ season. A loss to the Sharks and then a great win against the Chiefs? What’s going on? Is Ben Smith a ‘captain’? They have to aim for greater consistency of basic skills. The talent is all there.
The Bulls will be disappointed with their tepid and uneven display against a smarting Brumbies. Consistency will be needed if the Bulls are to be there at the end.