The rugby was like the curate’s famous egg: good in parts: in fact, brilliant in many passages of play in some of the matches.
We may as well begin with the scrum. Out again was trotted the super-importance of the Front Five. How their performance lays the platform for victory, how it establishes a psychological dominance, that will, in itself, produce an overall superior display and provide for a win. But, for anyone with two rugby brains to rub together – or just two modestly endowed brains – this is illogical, ill thought-through cant. Everyone knows that to win scrums is a powerful advantage, but only up to a point.
Surely everyone from the coaches to us mere spectators and amateur commentators, realise that it is what happens AFTER the ball is won from a set piece that decides whether tries will be scored or not. The provision of the ball is the first step only. The battle for scrum ball has become ‘a game within a game’. (A reminiscence: my wife June arrived late to watch a Rhodesian match once and sat next to Jenny Mundell, our hooker, Rob’s wife. June asked the score. Jenny replied ‘2-1’. June was baffled. Of course, as a supportive wife, Jenny knew the only score she had to know at the end of the match was the ‘tighthead count’.)
Broken play is something else altogether. Here is where the defence is most likely to be disorganised, where gaps appear, where a speedy three-quarter finds himself confronted with a lumbering lock. No contest! For younger rugby fans, it should be mentioned that this tactic, where the first player to the breakdown piles in to get the ball or deny it to the opposition, is something relatively new. Towards the end of the boring match between Sharks and Cheetahs, one noticed a flyhalf, Lambie, pile into a ruck. Unknown in my day. That rough stuff was for the forwards; we backs kept our shorts clean and waited for those down in the mine to serve us the ball on a platter. Silver if possible.
While the modern strategy makes sense in that the first player to the breakdown, can effect possession or, at least, slow down the opposition, this means those now outside in the ‘backline’ are often locks and props facing flyhalves, centres and wings! So every week, match in, match out, tries are scored by big strong fast backs faced by inadequate defenders I mean look at Mike Harris’s try for the Rebels against the Force. He stepped with ease past a committed but inept prop to score, or the Brumbies’ Toomua’s dummy to ghost past a flat-footed Reds’ hooker to make a try. (As a coach, I think I’d give a great deal of time to rethinking that, so that the forwards are, more often than not, at nearly all the breakdowns. Not easy, but it would minimize the number of times backs trotted past tight forwards to score. Would Pollard have scored his brilliant try against the All Blacks last season, ten metres from their line, if he’d been confronted with centres and a fullback? In fact, he burst past a hooker and a prop.)
So let’s have a quick look at why the much-vaunted Stormers were out-thought, out-gunned and out-played on Saturday at Newlands by a better-organised Chiefs outfit. Until this match, the Stormers played to a game plan based on powerful scrumming, good lineout play, possession from broken play and great cohesion between backs and forwards. The speed and distribution of their backs has been first class. But, and here come the ‘buts’.
Success is a fickle mistress. She does things with men’s minds. For one thing, she makes them think they can continue each weekend with more or less the same game plan and rake in a succession of solidly-worked victories. They begin to believe the limited truth ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ This maxim is limited because it assumes all opposing sides will not be planning ways to disrupt the so far successful strategy applied. They seem to forget today’s coaching squads have access to video footage of each game; analysis focuses on what needs to be introduced, altered, rethought. In this case: ‘How do we approach the scrum against the Stormers ? How do we breach their excellent defence, especially in the red zone? Perhaps we should work tactics to break and beat defenders further out from their tryline? How good are they at defending down the short side?’ And so on.
The Stormers went into their match against the Chiefs with much the same tactical approach as in earlier matches. Why not? It had worked well. But, the Chiefs had done their homework; they detected possible weaknesses in the Stormers defence patterns, they clearly worked hard at their brilliant short inter-passing bursts down the blind side and they had obviously given a great deal of thought to the Stormers’ scrumming technique. I think so much hype had accompanied the presumed ‘infallibility’ of the Stormers’ Front Five in these past few weeks, that a mindset was exaggerated, based on thinking, in turn founded on belief, that if they pushed the Chiefs back and disrupted their scrum, the match would probably be won. Their minds became addled. So addled I might add that the self-congratulatory backslaps to each other became more and more excitable. And, for me, more and more nauseating. While there’s nothing wrong with positive acknowledgement and encouragement, when a backline player races in to slap a prop on the back, for me it’s too much.
Well, it all started well and one marvelled at the skilfully coached Stormers’ 8 dominating for some time. At half time the home team led 16-13. So, I imagine the Stormer’s coaches saying in the changing rooms, ‘Going well. Don’t sit on the lead. More pressure please. Play in their half. And kick the goals.” Not bad advice really, but did they consider what the Chiefs might be planning next door?
At 13-16 down, clearly they were reassessing and replanning. And I think they talked about a greater effort in set-pieces, more ball ‘off the ground’ and a raised level of counter-attack, based on speed, strength and super-quick passing. ‘Forget the stupid spin pass, get the ball to the next guy. Get our big wings and centres in space. And I want more drives.’ (I’m putting words in their mouths.)
Ten minutes or so into the second half, for reasons difficult to fathom, the Stormers’ coach made a massive error; he substituted his entire front row when things had been going so well. Substitutes are all very well, but surely today’s players can take a full 80 minutes.( Well Koch had an injury). Here was a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’It wasn’t broke but Alister Coetzee and Matthew Proudfoot decided to ‘fix it’. It made no sense to make the change. From then on, the Chiefs dominated the scrums.
In the last 20 minutes, the Chiefs gave as good a display of intelligent running, passing and support play one has seen for a long time. Their whole performance was professiona, calm, composed. Deserved winners. Great game!! The Stormers will bounce back. They’re too good a side to lose their confidence.
As for the other matches, the Cheetahs vs Sharks affair was a bore – a match of ‘gaining grounds’ with some great kicking for the corners and the subsequent ‘rolling maul’ tries – two by Coetzee. As ‘man of the match’, I think Coetzee missed the irony in Robbie Kempson’s query: ‘It must be very easy to score tries with a pack of forwards in front of you.’ (The tactic is of course ridiculous; legalised obstruction.)
The Brumbies annihilated the incompetent Reds who have a mountain to climb. And in this game, at one point, the scrum was re-set six times! What’s to do?? The Crusaders resurrected themselves against a game but inconsistent Lions team – unexciting. The Rebels vs Force match reached no great heights as the visitors ground out a narrow victory.
I remain baffled by the inconsistent, sloppy, erratic play by the Blues. The Hurricanes out-witted them in all phases even though, such is the power of the Auckland side, that it became a thrilling encounter. The passing of the Blues was at crucial moments appalling – Cowan at scrumhalf, gave four passes to the head of the receivers! –all to the right....again! At one stage, the Hurricanes were so much in control they held the ball for 14 phases. Their overall running was superb. Some lovely tries by both teams. The result was close but the Blues committed too many basic errors at critical junctures.
What does Sir John Kirwan say to these underperforming, talented players each week? Surely not some motivational drivel along the lines of,’ I believe in you. Believe in yourselves. You can do it. You know that. I know that. So you go out there and play your own game.” It’s got to be better than that. It’s got to be about skills and cohesion and drive and possession and training sessions that drill towards perfection. ( I found myself thinking in a different sport of Kevin Pietersen’s stock reply to every question after a bad run of low scores: ‘That’s the way I play.’ Well, mate if it’s not working, why not rethink it! But then , that’s Kevin.)
The Highlanders vs Waratahs match was the other highlight of the weekend for me. The standard of play was so very high. The basic skills of passing, handling, tackling, scrumming, ball-retention and so on were superb. What tries! The one by Naholo, another super-giant Islander from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, had me out of my chair: such speed, such strength, such balance, such confidence. And then there is Osborne on the other wing! Outstanding! Fekitoa was great again for the home side. A match of seesaw brilliance – Highlanders 26- Waratahs 19.
Last point: do we have a single backline coach in South Africa who can some close to the creative expertise of the New Zealanders and Australians? I haven’t come across one. Our backline play – with obvious exceptions from time to time e.g van Wyk’s try against the Chiefs – is predictable and prosaic.