It was good to see Patrick Lambie back at flyhalf for the Sharks against the Jaguares in Atgentina. Here is a half-back, balanced, mature, skilled and a decision-maker and match-planner. He kicks well, does not miss tackles and guides his team with calm leadership. What a change from the short unhappy captaincy of 'the Beast'. Poor Mtawarira was clearly not coached on his role as captain. He was not instructed in the art of communication with referees. He tried his best, insistently contradicting the officials in an effort to 'support my team'. Noble really, but he was, in this area, a babe in arms.
In the one game, Tendai virtually accused the referee of cheating, saying something like, "You're giving 'them' penalties because they have a player off the field." He should have received a yellow card. The Sharks coaching staff forgot to give him a copy of that old guide to leadership; you know the one, reprinted many times: "How to influence referees and win matches" by Sean Fitzpatrick.
Anyway back to the Sharks, who scraped home because Sanchez missed a drop and Lambie goaled a late penalty. It was a close if relatively unexciting game, but showed again that Sean Barritt, the Sharks' 'Backs and Attack Coach' is doing some serious analytical thinking. His players are showing signs of flair and class they did not display at the start of the competition.
The Bulls vs Waratahs game started with both sides showing solid defence, so much so that after 30 minutes there was no score! I can’t remember last when that happened. Then, and the margins are small, a Bulls tackler did not hold on to Phipps –well I suppose he was trying to 'roll away' – and the scrumhalf regained his feet and scored. Then, and this must drive coaches mad, with the halftime whistle already blown, concentration slipped and Mumm went over. Suddenly the score was 17-3.
(Isn't it amazing how many times players give poor passes and knock the ball on in the normal course of a match? It just happens. But when the pressure is really on – say they have to score in the last few minutes – suddenly the errors are not committed and one can watch in awe as a team achieves up to 15 phases. It's all in the mind. Because if players can show that sort of concentration and determination not to give away possession then, why not from the first minute?)
In the second half, Foley, at flyhalf, gave a consummate display of half-back play. His judgement is usually spot on and his skills are out of the top drawer. The psychological rhythm in the latter part of the match went to the Waratahs. Horne was brilliantly aggressive on the left wing. It was noticeable how each time he was pinned on the touchline, he side-stepped inside to keep the ball alive. (Look, one doesn't want to be unfair to a great forager and runner like Habana, but he can't do the inside side-step or the in-out swerve to beat his opponent. He has learned latterly to drop the ball on to his left foot to grubber the ball along the touchline, but the results are too erratic.) Anyway, Horne was great.
S.P. Marais, continues to attack well but his one-footed weakness caught him out late in the game when he would have had to jink inside to kick with his right foot, couldn't and was caught in his own red zone. From the ensuing play, the Waratahs scored again. If Marais had a 'right foot' he'd have kicked the ball out near the ten metre line. Bloody inexcusable!
In that vein of thinking, has any coach ever discussed with the able flyhalf, Tian Schoeman, different ways to kick a rugby ball? I fear not. The only kicks he ever executes are up-and-unders and touch kicks. When the defence is up and at you, doesn't the Bulls' backline coach know that the chip and grubber are pure gold when done properly. Occasionally, Schoeman attempts the diagonal kick to the corner flag with some skill, but the overall Bulls approach to backline play remains rooted in a medieval frame of mind. They have the powerful infantry and some heavy artillery, but where's the cavalry? Serfontein is gifted but under-used.
The Bulls have only themselves to blame. They gave away too much possession against a marauding band of counter-attackers. They are, I think, too predictable. Where are the 'wrap-around' passes, the inside passes, the surprises. Nowhere really. How thorough is their analysis? Surely they should try the unexpected more, as, say teams like the Crusaders do.
Now, talk about 'resurrection from the dead'! The Lions, still smarting after fourteen uneasy 'sleeps' since the Hurricanes gave them a lesson in skill and driving play a few weeks ago, came on breathing fire. Jantjies looked a different player and effected two tries with perfectly placed kicks, even if the latter was off the wrong foot and the bounce was good. Who’s counting?
The first twelve minutes produced 19 points for the home side. Support play, intelligent decisions at halfback, driving forward play, excellent passing and off loads, it was exhilarating stuff. I was out of my seat when Jantjies chipped over the Blues' backline in the red zone, for the constantly improving and superbly confident Janse van Rensburg to score. The Lions played for the full 80 minutes. They now know 79 minutes of concentration are not enough.
What can one say about the performance of Lionel Mapoe on the day? Brilliant is the answer! He scored three tries working the short pass from his flyhalf to terrific effect, cutting in to take the short, soft offload at speed. He was unstoppable. The final score of 45-5 told the full story. Now, how to sustain this momentum is the challenge.
Like many others, I looked forward to the Crusaders clash with the Highlanders with eager anticipation. The teams did not disappoint, but the margin of victory was a surprise. For the Crusaders to concede five tries to their one, must have them scratching their heads. How did that happen? It's hard to say, but the Highlanders played with sustained ferocity for the full match. I think the Crusaders kicked away too much good ball. I kept notes and did not find one instance where a box-kick or aimless 'down the middle of the field' – I stopped counting after I'd checked twelve kicks of this sort – led to any, not one, instance of useful territorial gain. All that happened was that the other side now had the ball. I think too Sopoago kicked more accurately on the day.
The try of the match, perhaps of the season, came in the second half, when, after a bewildering series of interpassing moves, incredible support and offloads, Fonotia went over to put the final nail in the coffin. The Crusaders must have thought Saladin had come down from the hills with his fearful zealots from days of yore. (Matt Faddes is the 'find' of the season. What speed, what timing, what finishing! And the mighty Jordan Taufua? What a player! And he probably won’t make the NZ squad.)
A feature of the match was the skill of the 'offload' from both teams. This passing skill has changed rugby. It leads to fewer breakdowns and keeps the running game alive, I looked on in amazement as, first Read, then later, Osborne, took tackles with the ball held high away from defenders, in order to retain possession and keep the team moving forward. The standard of play was uniformly high. (Why did Crotty of the Crusaders come on so late? It's a puzzlement.)
Enough! I am too irritated to comment on the pathetic, over-confident non-performance of an arrogant Stormers team against the Sunwolves in Singapore. Here was an example to all to see of a team lacking in proper preparation, woefully stuffed with pride and woefully undercoached. I had heard, earlier in the week, the Stormers' head coach, Rob Fleck, say on TV that they were "looking forward to the enjoying the delights of Singapore". Perhaps I misheard, but there was not one word about the rugby match to follow.
While I'm still crabby, I'd give Lood de Jager a massive kick up the arse for his attempted grubber when he should have passed the ball in the Cheetahs match. The rule, gentlemen, is surely: "Don't do anything in a match you haven't practised at least fifty times in practice." But then Heyneke Meyer let Victor Matfield do that sort of aimless kick from time to time. Why? It baffles the mind.
Final thought: the depth of talent in NZ rugby is apparently limitless. You rank their flyhalves to take one position. My order is: 1. Dan Carter 2. Colin Slade 3. Aaron Cruden 4. Sopoago 5. Beauden Barrett. Barrett is last because his goal-kicking is below par. He's got the yips like our dear Ernie on the greens. Unless Barrett kicks them over 8 out of 10, I wouldn't look at him, despite his obvious talent as a player.
So NZ could easily mount three top class and competitive international sides. Their coaching is thorough, detailed and astute. End of story.