To state the obvious, the games are so often played at an exhilarating pace that collision is inevitable and errors occur unless concentration is at a peak. What aspects of play characterised matches over the weekend? Well, defence for one e.g. Lions, Hurricanes, Sharks, Chiefs, Force. Waratahs, among others. Tackling techniques no longer just involve ‘round the ankles’ but methods to ‘smother’, ‘rob’, ‘dislodge’, ‘recover’, ‘hold up’ the opponents with the ball.
Passing skills were generally slick and accurate; handling good. Teams now are more aware than ever, that they have to feed off their opponents’ errors, gain ‘turnover-ball’, convert defence into attack. Look at Sam Kane of the Chiefs or Michael Hooper of the Waratahs. A missed tackle in open play can easily lead to a try because support play is so good. Sampie Mastriet’s inside step to break the Rebels’ line was classic and his off-load to Boshoff perfectly timed. The Hurricanes tight 5 at one point in their match with the Highlanders, ran the blindside with interpassing of such quality it was breathtaking. (In the same way that today in cricket, batsmen 9, 10 and 11 are properly coached to bat well, now, in rugby, forwards are expected to pass and handle like backs. Not all can but, overall, there’s been something of a sea-change.)
‘Ball in hand’ remains the golden rule. Too much ball is still being kicked away aimlessly. South African coaches, and some others, clearly think this tactic of a ‘boot as far down the field as possible’ is acceptable. Surely they give it more serious analytical examination – or do they? If they do, it means they are happy with a few metres gained after the ‘gaining grounds’ exercise has run its course. They think it brings benefits. I have my doubts. I am of course happy with tactical diagonals.
Do coaches consider the alternatives of counter-attack with at least three players running back to ‘line up’ with the receiver and then run forward to link with those waiting? Intensive ‘situational training’ can put this in place. Surely running twenty or more metres forward and setting up ‘phase ball’ is better than hoofing the thing at opposing wings and a fullback who all know it’s coming. And, these days, wings are actually coached to catch the high balls. They are all good at it.
I notice many Antipodean teams now bring one of their huge, strong wings into the flyhalf position at set pieces, when attacking in the opponents’ red zone. At last wings are a vital part of the unit. I can remember a time when wings asked sarcastically after a game if they could be introduced to their own flyhalf – me, quite often! - as he had seldom sent the ball down the line or brought them in from the blindside.
So counter attack remains more vital than ever. Apart from the obvious value of kicking your penalties over, the games are won or lost by the decisions made in broken play. New Zealanders and Australians, at present, do it better than we do. Not all of them of course, but let’s have a look at the Force against the Bulls. The Force stuck to their plan throughout, moving the ball forward and playing with a great deal of courage, focus and intent. (Unfortunately, for the Force, Ebersohn, at pivot, kicked far too much possession away. He produced some good line kicks, handled and passed neatly, and to be fair was playing to instructions to keep the Bulls in their own half. And it nearly worked because the Bulls played so poorly in the first half.
The Bulls seemed unable to get into the Force half often enough. Kicking was inaccurate and there were a multitude of unnecessary errors. Discipline was poor. The Force gave their hosts a lesson in counter-attacking. The Bulls were hapless on the day. They looked...well not comatose but, let’s say, arrogantly complacent. There was no spark, little drive, no initiative. It was rugby by numbers.
After half-time it was a different story. They’d obviously got a ‘rev’ from their coach, advice they should have received before the start. For the first part of the second half, the Bulls showed the intelligent desperation of players who realised they might actually lose to a side they had clearly underrated. But, in the end, they won – by a point. At home!
Or did they? Well, one could argue, they didn’t really ‘win’; the Force lost. My evidence? Elementary, my dear Watson: Luke Burton, as inept a Super 15 goal-kicker as you’re likely to see this season, missed THREE easy penalties. Pollard missed one penalty attempt. The Force scored THREE tries! The hard truth is Luke Burton’s lack of penalty skills cost his side victory. That’s the brutal truth. My guess? He doesn’t practise hard enough or well enough. While Lambie, Catrlkilis, Pollard, Carter, Foley, Slade and Co have raised the level of goal-kicking to the topmost rung, this was a match-losing effort. Let’s hope the young man learns and works to get into the top rank of kickers. Or let someone else do it. ( I once heard a theory regarding how to go about selection: first pick your captain, then your place-kicker. Sense?).
The Sharks vs Chiefs affair was a disgrace. One can’t blame it all or even mostly on the appalling weather. THREE RED CARDS! All by players who cannot make the distinction between hard physical. manly rugby and indifferent brutality. I’ve always had my doubts about Bismarck du Plessis’ ability to distinguish between tough and dirty rugby and he showed his true colours in that match. ( I suppose a four match ban is enough?) This so-called leader has let his team mates down through lack of common sportsmanship and common sense. As for Francois Steyn and yet another ‘tip tackle’, the mind reels. It seems so innocent, doesn’t it ? Tip-tackle? What’s the problem? This is a ‘man’s game’. But what actually happens is the ‘tackled’ player has his head driven into the ground and serious neck injuries are possible. ( I haven’t forgotten Max Brito, who is probably sitting in his wheelchair trying to make a life of it in Ivory Coast, all from an incident in the 1995 World Cup in RSA).
So what to do about the talented Steyn? There are clearly problems in his mental attitude on the field and especially in pressure situations. ‘Impulsive’ and ‘temperamental’ are the words that come to mind. (Do you remember how Francois Steyn, as a young Sharks player, singlehandedly lost the Currie Cup for his team at Kings Park some years ago now, by: i) grabbing the ball to attempt a hurried conversion when the Sharks were behind and time was running out – without consultation with his captain. The kick missed. ii) A little later, the final hooter sounded. Did Steyn kick the ball directly into touch? No! He went for distance down the field. The ball screwed off his boot, Habana took it near the touchline, embarked on a circular run against mesmerised opposition, scored near the posts. The Sharks lost the match and the Bulls won the cup. I can still see Jaco van der Westhuizen standing on the crossbar, arms akimbo, gloating in celebration.)
It might seem mean to recall that but the impulsive signs are still there. Steyn needs some serious counselling and a course in self-discipline. The same for the dangerous Hika Elliott of the Chiefs who clearly did not have the ball in mind when he shoulder-charged Mtawrira’s trapped head in a ruck.
A word about the Highlanders vs Hurricanes match: I was bowled over by the overall skill and sustained concentration. The performance of basic skills was very high. In the end, one could say the Hurricanes won it through better defence – Nonu was outstanding. Once again, something about defence strategy I raised last week, was again apparent and it’s not going to be solved unless it’s rethought. I refer to Sopoago’s flyhalf try from second phase. He knifed through two inept Hurricane defenders for a great try. Whom did he beat? Against him were a large, stubby prop and a rangy lock. No contest. It seems to me, defence coaches are really effective at coaching defence near their own try line -– take the Stormers defensive technique as an obvious example – but as long as they ignore the defensive positioning of key players based on ‘strength on strength’, backs will go through tight forwards like blades through butter.
Many of us saw all the matches so I don’t want to go on in detail, but I must mention the Lions’ incredible victory against the Melbourne Rebels!! This was a win based on pure guts, underpinned by good coaching and even better mental preparation. Across those Lions jerseys should be emblazoned in gold ‘Never Say Die!’ The Rebels did more with possession, distributed well, kicked effectively, tackled soundly. On three occasions they were over the Lions’ try line but the defensive work was so good they could not ground the ball. Then in the last few minutes, some wonderful running off the ball by Mapoe and a very unlikely victory was won. The coaching staff and the captain can take a bow. I thought Boshoff and Jantjies combined well with the latter on form with the boot. (How interesting that with a plethora of good flyhalves, three outstanding players are having to play at inside centre for their teams : Dan Carter. Elton Jantjies and Lealiifano.)
I really can’t bring myself to say anything rational or intelligent about the Cheetahs/Crusaders game. Just this. How do you lose 14 - 57 when you’re leading 14-10 at halftime? Yellow cards tell only a part of the story. Astonishing! Where was the leadership?
Finally, an acknowledgement that the Six Nations standard looks very good to me, more solid overall than some of our Super 15 teams. I hope I’m proved wrong when the World Cup comes around. The England/ France game was phenomenal!)
(A reminiscence: when I saw the French wing almost step over the dead ball line before he placed the ball, I was reminded of a match in the 1960’s between Victoria Sports Club in Rhodesia and a farming community team, Gutu. For Victoria Club, it was our closest match, a mere 65 miles away on strip roads and gravel. The pitch was acceptably level, the spectators enthusiastic and the play frantic. Gutu supporters at times ran up the touchline encouraging their team with cries of ‘Pale toe!’ and “Lekker kalm vat!’ At one point in that match, a duiker darted across the field. Local children chased after it. But my main memory is of the disappointment of one of our locks, Jimmy Thompson, who was delighted that day when he scored his first-ever try, leapt to his feet in triumph only to find he’d placed the ball over an African footpath five metres short of the try line.)