Super Rugby: Fifth Week 10th and 11th April 2015

Well, who wasn’t proud of our South African teams? The play of all those on tour was most impressive. There was guts, drive, leadership, concentration, opportunism, error, recovery and a full 80 minute commitment; the way the game should be approached and played.

One can hardly speak too highly about the first two matches I watched: ‘Highlanders vs Crusaders’ and ‘Stormers vs Waratahs’. In the former, the defiant defence of the Highlanders, playing away, and their careful planning on attack sustained an edge throughout the match. They used the blindside to great effect. Even without a second kicker – one can’t seriously call Aaron Smith a goal-kicker – when Sopoaga had got his second yellow card in two weeks, the H’s prevailed, courtesy of some great play by their entire side and two dominating wings – Osborne and the giant Naholo. His intercept try was a turning point. Another was off a rather random kick by Ellis for the Crusaders, which bounced awkwardly, was snapped up by Sopoaga, devastating on the break and, with a marvellous off-load to Ben Smith, a great and unexpected try was scored.

I see it is now a planned tactic of the Crusaders to have Kieran Read hang about on the right wing in open play. He’s big and fast and I recall a try against the Springboks using him in this way, but isn’t he wasted there most of the time. I thought he was ‘coasting’ on Friday last. He should be in the thick of things. I also thought McCaw looked sluggish and slow and did he step up in those last vital minutes as a captain? This is probably too harsh a speculation because so many factors separate defeat from victory but I didn’t detect much urgency in the later stages of the match from the home side.

(Despite their obvious talents, why do these guys like McCaw and Matfield hang on? Money? No future plans? Well, who knows? And it’s their call. I’m as certain as I can be that Matfield will be at the World Cup this year and will play well.....but is he the best choice? )

I have been going on about backs scoring tries because they are faced often by a porous defence of props and locks against them. In this match, Slade beat Fekitoa – strength on strength – by running a clever line. There were some great tries. To mention only one, remember the one by the powerful Taifua from 20 metres out. Unstoppable! For the Highlanders, this was a famous victory. H25 – CR 20.

The Stormers were magnificent against the Waratahs, who looked in shock and overconfident. As I’ve said many times before, Lady Success is a beguiling witch. She can so easily take the edge off your play, induce in you feelings of omnipotence and an inability to sustain variable play and restart the engine. But the match was won by the Stormers; it wasn’t lost by the Waratahs.

Scrumming was powerful – despite the ref’s continuing rant at Koch at tighthead that he must ‘keep your feet under your body”! I’ve never heard anyone say that to Koch throughout the season. Of course, no prop can stay up without having his feet or at least one near the centre of balance. It seemed a crazy comment to me. (See remarks on scrums later). The whole team played with zest and drive, breaks by Kolbe, de Jongh and de Allende were electrifying, and the defence – as usual – was impenetrable. Support play was superb. To carp a bit, the passing of both sides was patchy – yes,’ to the right’. (The commentators go on calling the errors ‘knock-ons’ but eight out of ten of them  come from bad passes. Why don’t the stats men put those up on the board. Any pass badly above or below the navel should be recorded. It’s ridiculous to blame the receivers of rubbish week-in, week-out.)

I thought, early in the game, when a new monster from the Islands, Nyaroryaro (Sp!), brushed aside de Jongh, Ntumbeni and Leyds to score, the visitors were in for some real trouble. But they contained him rather as the Boks did Lomu some years ago or as a pride of young lionesses attacks a buffalo - in packs. Great win Stormers! ST 32 – W 18.

The Cheetahs beat the Force because they sustained pressure and there were some great performances by Brussouw, Venter, Sadie and Hendricks. Pietersen was sound at flyhalf despite the missed tackle on Morahan which cost the vistors a try. (I noted young Luke Burton, who ‘lost’ the match against the Bulls with his poor goal-kicking a week ago, has been practising and kicked some good penalties for the Force.) 

There were two great tries for the Cheetahs, one by Rhule and one after a skilful period of support and interpassing by Sadie, Hendricks and Venter. A turning point in the game was Joe Pietersen’s drop goal from forty metres out in the second half. For the home side, Ebersohn was again neat but generally ineffective. In the end, one could say the best form of attack was the Cheetahs defence. It was great, solid, committed, and this after a shocking display in all games until now. CH 24 – WF 15.

The Reds/Bulls game was a puzzle. The first four tries scored came off unforced errors by the opposition. For the Bulls, Hougaard was at his opportunistic best. Frisby seems a competent and promising flyhalf and there was some great committed play by the Reds throughout but they couldn’t ‘finish’.

Once again, with a non-kicker like Lachie Turner doing duty, the visitors were on the back foot. ( I think I said a while ago that it was wise in selection to first pick your captain, then your kicker. I’m changing now to : pick your captain and then pick two kickers. They must, of course, warrant their selection as overall good players.) The end result was a fair reflection allowing for some luck. I thought the Bulls much-criticised scrum showed some improvement but there is work to be done. (Hell! Burger Odendaal looks like a real flyer to me.) B 43 – R 22.

Last week I didn’t mention the lamentable performance of the Sharks, admittedly against a brilliant display of fifteen-man rugby by the Crusaders at their very best. This week, indiscipline, once again. lay at the heart of the Sharks failure to dominate, although there were flashes and I thought when they were down 3-14, they were still in with a shout. 

But...........there are clearly problems with leadership and management on and off the field. What’s going on? I see after the match against the Lions, Gary Gold, the Head Coach of the Sharks, has opted for the dangerous policy of laying much of the blame at the feet of refs. Well, we all know refs. They are the whipping boys of rugby. They are also fallible, like players. Gold used as an example the high tackle from behind of his Esterhuizen of the errors refs make.’ Look, Gary, the rules are clear. ‘Don’t tackle high or late. Stop squealing!’ 

I can remember when NZ refs were heavily criticised for allegedly blowing more SA players than others. Difficult to prove and so it looked like self-serving rationalisation. Let’s face it, until he started to ‘grow up’, Schalk Burger was a menace on the field with his dangerous high tackles. He’s got the message more or less now, but then, he made even Butch James’ ‘clothesline throat tackles’ look ordinary. (My son, Mark, once said, wittily I think, reffing a school game and being criticised by the players: “ All right! Let’s get this straight. I won’t make any mistakes if you don’t.” End of story.).

Back to the Sharks and their problems, questions have to be asked: Why did Gold arrive so late to take over the reins? Contracts elsewhere? Money? These things are happening on John Smit’s watch. What has he had to say? Nothing I’ve read. If you take the praise when you’re in charge and things go right, when things go wrong, take it on the chin. I noted with interest, Brian van Zyl, former CEO, had some guarded things to say in the Sunday Times last week. Are there too many ‘Chiefs’ at the NRU? There’re certainly enough’ Indians’ contracted,  as mentioned last week. What’s that I read too about a ‘revolt’ of senior players when Jake White was in charge? Why did White sail off into the Pacific sunset so soon any way? He left the Brumbies in a hurry?  It’s all baffling.

To get back to rugby on the field: the Lions, apart from a ridiculous patch of not going for poles and buggering about with ten minutes of what looked like ‘touch rugby’ in the second half, played with their now expected sustained attack, founded on devastatingly effective defence. To their credit, the Sharks ‘came back’ and lost narrowly, but they did not deserve to win. A lot of hard thinking has to be done. There’s simply got to be an infusion of tough, strong, reasonable and intelligent leadership. The talent is there. L 23 –SH -21

(After the blog a fortnight ago I was asked if I had exaggerated the swearing of the British and Irish Lions coaches on the documentary I had viewed. The answer is ‘absolutely not’. ( Look for yourself if you wish to: it’s on line. I began to think it was more of a Northern Hemisphere thing. Remember the All Black prop, Richard Loe, a few years ago saying he was shocked when he played his first match for a French team. In the dressing room, every player was donning a cricket box! Grabbing the privates of opponents was and remains – remember the anger of Adriaan Strauss  in a recent match versus the French – part of so-called ‘tactics’. But then I recalled playing rugby in the Eastern Province while at Rhodes! University – head high tackles, late tackles, ‘maak oop’ and hit the pinned hooker in the mouth, rake the bodies and kick those on the ground. It was horrendous!)

Are the scrums getting better? Lorraine Mullins, who played for Rhodes University and Keble College at Oxford many years ago, wrote to make comments on the scrum and its role in modern rugby: his main argument revolves around the fact that they waste time. He has a point: I mean if there are say fifteen scrums in a match, each taking two minutes to set and reset etc. that’s thirty minutes out of eighty! Lorraine asks how on earth refs know for sure which prop has transgressed. I recall Robbie Kempson, former Springbok prop, saying a few seasons ago when a defending prop was penalised in a scrum five yards from his own try line, “ No prop in his right mind  is going to deliberately foul in that position. It’s crazy.”

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