24 February 2015
What an exhilarating game rugby is! Played the way it is today, with talented players superbly coached and prepared, levels of fitness at a high level, and just about all the fundamental skills required, executed to perform and outplay the opposition. But at no time is it robotic. It remains a game of judgement and decision, of timing. At the pivot, the flyhalf, in a split second, has to make one of three decisions – pass, kick or keep. One can translate that situation across the other fourteen positions in one way or another. These first few matches of our winter Super 15 produced play of the highest standards. The laws of rugby today have made it a better, faster game. The points for try, penalty, drop are just about right. It was not always so.
(When I began watching this wonderful game at age 10 in East London, Eastern Cape, things were different: a drop got you FOUR points, a try THREE! To convert a try, a player had to hold the ball off the ground and then lower it so the kicker could execute the kick; lineouts could stretch across the field, high tackles on long-sleeved jersey collars were rife, flanks could follow the ball round the scrum and scrag the opposite scrumhalf as he took it, wings threw the ball in at lineouts, you could kick the ball out on the full from any position on the field, a knock-on was whistled up if you fumbled the ball even if you regained it without it touching the ground, you could tackle an opposing player in the air as he jumped to catch the ball. Allow me a reminiscence: I was captain of Rhodes University in 1958 in a match against an Eastern Cape country town team, Somerset East. The field was bone hard. We had, as usual, travelled up from Grahamstown in one of Beaumont and Rice’s lorries with a canopy on the back. It was cold, and peeing over the board into the road as the bus rattled along required concentration and accurate aim. There were no such things as tracksuits. We wore raincoats to keep the cold out. Anyway, during the game, the opposition kicked an up-and-under. I hastily looked around for someone else to take it, but realised I had to. As I caught the ball in the air, the Somerset East 8th man hit me in the kidneys with his shoulder and hurled me to the ground. The ligaments in my lower back were torn. I was in agony. I was taken to the local hospital where a kindly, unattractive nurse called Alena, eventually gave me a shot of pethedine. I became addicted that day! The pain ebbed away as a clear mountain stream and I lay there silently praising the wonders of ‘modern’ medicine. I looked at Alena and she had changed. Now she was the spitting image of Elizabeth Taylor, stunningly beautiful! I was filled with the milk of human kindness. After I borrowed a pencil from a man in the next bed, I thought I should write to him to thank him. Perhaps all the world leaders should be on pethedine. It took me weeks to recover. Six years later while doing History Honours at Rhodes I was picked to play for Eastern Province. In the team was the same bastard at No. 8, the one who had put me in hospital. He recalled the incident with humour that I didn’t share. So the game has changed for the better.....more of that some other time.)
I didn’t see all the matches but there was some wonderful play. I found myself rethinking my rather negative attitude to the scrum. Hell! In some matches, the technique of scrumming very low, produced many penalties and kickable ones at that. The scrum was not just another way of starting play. Of course the interminable delays occur, the collapses, the dubious decisions which no layman can adjudicate and which I fear some refs blow arbitrarily. The rolling maul was used to good effect but some teams have worked hard at defending it and twice the Lions failed to score against the Sharks when a try would usually be on. Coetzee’s two tries in that match were the result of clever shielding of the ball and expert timing and drive.
Tactical kicking remains problematical. Even Lambie, who is an astute thinker, kicked two down the throats of the opposition. On the other hand, his two diagonal kicks for his wings – one to the left, the other to the right – were out of the top drawer and Ndungane scored from one. I suppose one must accept that keeping the ball on the field guarantees some form of continuity, but lots is aimless ‘skop and hope’, waiting to finally gain some ground and give possession away to the other side. As far as drop goals are concerned I think they’re underused. Defensive tactics are so good in the red zone that I think it may well be a better option to kick the drop from fairly close in and take the points and keep doing it. Of course if your rolling maul is virtually unstoppable, then that’s the way to go. Who can ever forget Jannie de Beers FIVE drop goals to put England out of the World Cup in 1999. Great skill and the result of careful pre-match analysis. There have been many fine Springbok flyhalves, but I’ve never seen a better one than Jannie de Beer, who, at the time played second fiddle to the equally great Henry Honiball. (The best I played against was Keith Oxlee of Natal).
There were some amazing upsets with wins by the Force against the Waratahs! I missed that one. And then, how on earth did the Rebels beat the mighty Crusaders?? A clever game plan, drive, a policy of ‘going forward’. front foot play, sound kicking and what temperament and determination.
And what’s to say of the Bulls? I ask with sincerity and some irritation: ‘What is Victor Matfield doing still playing rugby at this level in his thirty-eighth year? Does he need the money? Can he afford not to play? Is he a better bet than young du Toit or Etzebeth or Hattingh or the Free State pair? Decide for your self, but, despite his fantastic lineout skills, he is slow about the field. I don’t like saying so but I think the time has come. Pollard has been a curate’s egg at flyhalf – parts good, parts not so good. But he is a real talent. I don’t rate van Zyl at scrumhalf and would start with Rudi Paige. It was interesting to see Spies back on the field. His long absence remains a mystery for me; it can’t all be explained by injury, surely. He remains strong, fast, dedicated, determined and predictable. Vermeulen is all those things and more: he strikes me as a fine thinker and decision-maker. There is an inspirational side to him too.
So how were matches won? By taking advantage of over-confidence ( Rebels over Crusaders and Cheetahs over the Sharks), kicking goals at crucial times (Canes vs Bulls). And what are we to make of the red card given to one Hayden Triggs (Charles Dickens would have loved that name)? The law so I heard says if there is a punch to the face, it’s red. I have to support it but it does place one team on the back foot, But then that was always the way in the past – no replacements, no yellows, only ‘reds’ in those day when men were men. I did hear one of the Stormers’ coaching squad say he thought it was a planned tactic of the Blues to put Vermeulen off his stride. Well it back fired , big time. There were many great tries but I’ll go for the one by Dillyn (another father who can’t spell at the Birth Registry Office!) Leyds against the Blues. As you would have seen, he caught the ball under great pressure, spun round and sprinted sixty or so metres to score. Breathtaking! Oh, before I go, my usual thing : passing. Of the games I saw, there were only two poor passes to the left. There were TEN that went wrong; too short, too hard, too low, behind the receiver etc. to the RIGHT. These coaches simply don’t get it. Practise passing to the RIGHT twice as much as to the left. Enough already.