Observations on SUPER RUGBY WEEKEND 25/26 APRIL 2014

The Blues played at bewildering speed. Basic skills were mostly flawless. In the 18th minute, they scored from a towering kick into the oppostition half, which led to a poor pass - to the right! - a Nonu break, slick offload to Donnelly, up in support from lock, and a great try. Then it was a marvellously judged and executed grubber from Nonu - who else? - which led to another try. The Blues maintained constant pressure on the Waratahs, who tried hard, but could not cope with a sustained display of direct rugby - everyone in possession drove forward, there was little kicking away of possession, right decisions made at the right time. For the W's, Ashley-Cooper was outstanding in both attack and defence, and the forwards, at times, won good ball. Kicking out of hand was patchy. There was also bad luck - a part of every sport. This example was particularly cruel. Foley, a really talented flyhalf with all the skills and judgment, kicked a near perfect diagonal for his right wing. But, the rugby ball, being oval in shape, bounced behind the intended receiver and? In a brilliant exposition of opportunist play, quick, accurate inter-passing down the left flank, Sarhili touched down near the corner.
Rugby matches these days, be it the Super 15 or the Aviva Premiership in the Northern Hemisphere, are, so often,  won from inintended errors or lack of concentration. To give an example: Phipps, the lively and talented - well all the players I watch in this tournament are talented - scrumhalf for the Waratahs, made some basic mistakes, which, one could argue, cost his side any chance of victory: overall he was slow to the breakdowns, which is inexcusable. ( The 'champion' at this ,in my book, was Jano Vermaak, especially when he played for the Lions.) Slow to clear, any momentum is lost. Phipps had a bad day too distributing - but that's relative. A lot of grubbers were kicked with the 'wrong' i.e. inside boot and clattered into the opposing defence, but Sarhili kicked one which got through - try. The grubber is one of the most potent weapons of an attacking side up against solid defence. the chip kick seldom works - except the brilliant display by McLeod of the Sharks in last year's Currie Cup final, when he was as accurate as a darts player.There's plenty of evidence to support the grubber and Nonu has developed into one of the best exponents.
Score: B 21- W13.
My overall impression was, without Cruden and with Messum playing erratically - brilliant and sloppy by turns - the Chiefs lacked concentrated purpose and focus. Too many opportunities went begging because of amateurish passing and handling. Anscombe stood out as a really dependable pivot and made telling breaks throughout.
The Brumbies were terrific with superb tries by Kurudrani (2) and Toomua ( 2), Tomane (1). Even with Mogg not at his best, the visitors came back at the end to put in some fine tries, the best by Webber, the reserve Chiefs scrumhalf.
I found myself wondering how a captain keeps his team 'going' when it is so far ahead on points and there is little chance the opposition will score enough in the time available even to gain a bonus point. Not easy! So the Brumbies, confident of victory, fell away in the last fifteen minutes and allowed the Chiefs to show their true ability.
The Chiefs are going to have to have a deep rethink about playing for the full 80 minutes with ball in hand.
The Highlanders were magnificent -they handled and passed with the required skill i.e. direction, speed and timing, their defence was solid, they finished off effectively and took every opportunity. And they scored four tries to none! Against the overall log leaders!
The home side, after denial of an Mvovo try, on what looked like a trivial technicality - but I'm not the official so my opinion means nothing - reverted to a display they will want to forget quickly after they have analysed what went wrong. And a hell of a lot went dreadfully wrong!
The Sharks fundamental skills, passing, handling and kicking - not to forget weak and uncommitted tackling; were they scared re injury before the long haul to the Antipodes? - were, well, abysmal. That's as low as you can go. I have never seen so many poor passes from a top team - all recorded as 'handling errors' by the commentators and other bone-headed statisticians. Steyn gave three of these appalling efforts, one of which would, had it gone to hand, led to a try. His last pass - may I repeat 'to the right' - went to Pietersen's shins! I began thinking after 17 minutes, has the awful presence of arrogant overconfidence infiltrated the psyche of the whole team? Success is a fickle mistress - she lures you, like Circe, and then, when it suits her mood, turns you into a herd of pigs and you play like Gadarene swine, running fast and aimlessly over the edge.
And during this display of ineptitude, what were the Highlanders up to? They were playing rugby! Apart from the odd error and lack of discipline - Aaron Smith throwing the ball away to lose ten metres for a subsequent three points - they ran, passed, supported and kicked with rare brilliance and effectiveness. Battling away in the scrums against superior opponents, they held their own, while the Sharks squandered possession time and again. So, at the break, the Highlanders were up three tries to none - the Sharks were in shock.
(At half-time, Nick Mallett, on Super Sport, had the grace to say, " I've just been wiping the egg off my face." Before the match, he and Naas Botha had rubbished the visitors pack as unworthy and no match for the home players. They dwelt at some length on the overall weakness of the Highlanders as a disorganised, courageous unit, who 'tried hard', but were bottom of the NZ 'Conference' and showed it.)
A few other things: the Sharks have three dominant left-footed kickers in their side Mvovo, Erasmus and McLeod. Now, any flyhalf with half a brain will know how to pressure them into the 'wrong area' so that their return kicks are short or give away possession. So we saw Erasmus use the left foot near the left touchline and so kick into touch a 'full' ten metres and give away possession, Mvovo hack the ball down field to give opportunities to - have they heard of him? - the superb Ben Smith, who gave a faultless display of counter-attacking, and McLeod's boot was poor on the day. Ironically, late in the game, when Erasmus did - he HAD to - use is untutored right foot, it resulted in possession for the H's, and a spectacular try by Fekitoa, who ran 60 metres to score the try of the match. ( Former Sevens players know how to run into space.)
Enough! It was ANZAC DAY and the visitors did their coaches and their country proud.
Mallett had berated and did again after this match,  the lack of fundamental skills in all South African sides. He won't win friends, but he's dead right. Perhaps Naas Botha, another canny analyst, got it right when he wondered whether SA teams keep their focus first on the game plan and then on the skills to implement it. It's a point. My tickey's worth is: what are the backline coaches doing? During training do they practise 'passing to the right' - where 8 out of 10 errors occur - and practise all the skills of backline play including catching and kicking, under pressure? That's vital! As for the Sharks' kicking on Friday evening: aimless in direction, length and tactical nous. The home side gave away two tries directly from kicks which missed touch; one an inept effort by Alberts ( where was he all afternoon??) and the one by Erasmus.The need is , obviously, for more situation-rehearsal and simulation practice, again and again and again. ( It's no good saying Mtawarira's overhead pass behind Pietersen's head was understandable because 'he's only a forward'. Those days are gone! Forwards need all the skills in today's game.
As I close this critical account, I think, well the coaches are not trying to get it wrong and the players do let them down ( think David Moyes in another sport), but, ultimately, if your coaches aren't absolutely ruthless in their demand for 'perfect' basics, they shouldn't be there.
More to come.
Neil Jardine
26 April 2014
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