Super 15 week six: 17/18 April 2015

I mentioned Joe Pietersen’s magnificent drop goal last week which marked something of a turning point in his match. I think drops are under-used. I will go back to Jannie de Beer’s incredible feat of five in a match to beat England in the 1999 World Cup fixture at Stade Francais – see below. The drop used at the right time remains a deadly weapon. So why is it so rarely employed?

I don’t think coaches analyse its potency and value when teams are in the ‘red zone’ and the opposition has a cast-iron defence system, which, bar the Cheetahs for most of this season, all sides have.

Admittedly, another ploy is to force a scrum five yards out and go for the ‘penalty try’ option – something more and more common. I have no problem with that but it’s only one arrow in the quiver.

Professional fouls in the ‘red zone’ by defenders are more and more prevalent. (I agree with my son Mark’s contention that penalties from fouls in the red zone should count at least FOUR points.)

Depending on the state of the game, why not pop over a drop and keep in with a chance? (Of course, if the attacking side needs the fourth try for a bonus point, the drop is not an option.)

I think most flyhalves are nervous to try the drop goal. They are nervous because, if they miss, the crowd groans and there is plenty of ‘Why didn’t he pass the bloody thing?’, ‘ What a waste of possession!’ ‘ Mr. Ego!’ etc. So the decision, assuming the requisite skills are there, rests very much on self-confidence.

I’m sure Nick Mallett and his fellow-coaches gave Jannie de Beer the right advice in 1999. ‘Whenever you think it’s on, Jannie, go for it. If you’re off, try something else, but we’ll back you’....something like that. And de Beer delivered, as they say, ‘big time’.

Were I coaching, I would get my flyhalves to practise drops with either foot at least half as much as they practise their place kicks. I used to do just that at Churchill School, where I was deputy-head and assisting Peter Snyder with the Ist and 2nd XVs. After school practice, I would ask Danny Delport, later a sensation for Natal on the wing, but who played scrumhalf at school, to pass to me on either side of the field. Left and right-foot drops, over and over. (By the way I would not play any back in my team who couldn’t kick punts equally well with either foot. So there’d be no S.P Erasmus (Sharks) or Fonotia (Crusaders) in my side, no matter how good they are at other skills. There are too many other’ one-foot merchants’ in other teams too.)

Remember Johnny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal in the 2003 final in his ‘other’ foot. He had the skill and the confidence. (But, do you remember Pat Lambie’s drop in the final minutes of our 2011 World Cup quarter-final from near the halfway line - some of us old moaners like to recall this match as ‘Bryce Lawrence’s Worst with the Whistle’ – which went a metre wide of the right upright and we were out of the World Cup? Had it gone over, we were through to the semis. So narrow are the margins.

(Reminiscence: (a) I captained a Rhodesian team to South Africa in 1962, we lost 20-12 to Natal, then were pulverised at Loftus by Northern Tvl, 45-8, and went on to Springs to play Eastern Tvl. I marked Norman Riley, who in the following season played flyhalf in the first test for the Springboks against the Australian tourists. (b) In those ‘subdue and penetrate’ days, Norman was told by his test captain, Avril Malan, to kick every ball he received from set pieces into touch. He followed orders until after half time when he made two blistering breaks and the Boks nearly scored. The match was drawn or the Boks lost, can’t recall. Whatever, in the end the series was drawn. Norman was made the scapegoat and thrown out with the used jockstraps. He had committed the then UnSouth African sin of thinking and reading the game. He had disobeyed the teutonic instructions of his inflexible masters for a very short part of the game. ‘Zere are consequences! Voetsak off to Siberia!’ So it was back East to Benoni, Boksburg and Springs! Not as cold as Siberia, but still.... Surely if Norman Riley was good enough for one test he was good enough for two?

In this Eastern Tvl fixture, Rhodesia played well, with our forwards very focused and determined on the day. In the last minute, we won a scrum just outside the 22; it was perfect for a left foot drop to win the match. As I took the ball I realised we had an overlap on the left wing, where Trevor Lake had a good chance of scoring, but I was already in the act of drop kicking. I hit it in the guts, it scudded under the crossbar and we lost by two points. The ref, one Monty Woolley, said as he blew the final whistle, ‘I wouldn’t like to be you in the change room’. From hero to zero in a split second.)

(Reminiscence Two: Fast forward to 1970: Aged 33, I am dragged back into the national side after Free State beat Rhodesia by 30 points in Salisbury on the previous Saturday. At the hotel in Bulawayo, preparing to play Western Tvl with its three Springboks – Dirkie de Vos, scrumhalf, du Randt at fullback and one of their tight five – our team was quiet and fearful. I think there were five or six changes to the team after the FS debacle. 

Des van Jaarsveld was our coach and, at the team talk in the hotel, he lit into us, even those who had not played the previous week. He castigated, of all people, Ted Alexander, who paled under the attack. Brian Murphy, if I remember correctly, was similarly raked over the coals, told by Des, “I don’t know why you’re still in the team’. Rob Stewart, in for his first match, whispered to me, ‘Hell, I don’t know if I want to play.’ 

Ian Roberson, on debut, listened quietly to the tirade. He knew he had talent to spare and nothing to lose. It was, for him, the start of a great career. He played well throughout the match and of course went on to fame for the Springboks in future years. Great player and lovely man. (Not in good health I’m told.)

Well, it was one of those team talks which ‘worked’ – whether we were to go on to win or lose. We were ‘pumped’!! Believe me, the tone of Des’s talk was more ‘Adolf at Nuremberg’ than ‘Winston in the House of Commons.’ Not renowned for a devastating defence, I would have dived under a tank for Des that day and tackled well. We all did. 

The match commenced and scores stayed within range; then, shortly before half time, the remarkable Ted Alexander, with his razor-sharp mind, picked up the ball, dropped out from our 22, passed it to our powerful right wing, Danny Svoboda, who careered off down the field to score. Magic! Now the match could go any way. We were in with a chance. But, late in the game, behind on points, playing wide, Westerns passed beautifully to their blitsvinnig right wing who went round Cedric Duncan on our left to score under the posts. 

Three minutes to go. Score: Western Tvl 16 – Rhodesia 15. In an important Currie Cup match; for us especially. I looked at Ted as he picked up the ball and thought I saw tears in his eyes. ‘What’s the matter with you?” I said. As he tossed the ball to me, he said, “I’m bloody sick of losing,”  

I said, ‘Give me the ball.” Two minutes to go.

I ran to the halfway line and dropped out left, not sure now why I chose to go left. They knocked on. A scrum was called. My centres, Mulligan and Northcroft, implored me to pass, assured me they would score. Tension was high. Our captain, Rob Mundell, gave no indication of what should be done. I said to my eager young centres, “No. I’m not passing it. I’m dropping for goal.” They were unimpressed and said so. So, if it went over, hero; if not, ‘idiot’.

The ball went in, our forwards won it well, Ted gave me a perfect pass, the opposition backs raced up, I hit the drop with my right, ‘other’, foot, from 45 metres out and it went straight over the crossbar. Final whistle. Victory! ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune’. Well, that’s how I remember it.)

Don’t ignore the drop!

So, back to the Super 15 last weekend. No winning drop goals to report. Only poor place-kicking by Bowden of the Blues and Zeilinga of the Sharks. Lionel Cronje also missed a crucial long penalty. Forget the ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ and the ‘oohs and ahs’, the Blues lost their match because they didn’t kick their penalties. Elementary, my dear Kirwan.

What a match of two halves this battle was against the Highlanders! The home side dominated the first half and turned 27-0 up. No contest. So what was said in the Blues dressing room during the break? It must have been well in advance of ‘fire and brimstone’, for the Highlanders could score only 3 points in the second half, a re-energised Blues, 24!  How can that happen?! I have to wonder why Kirwan didn’t give that sort of rousing talk before the game? I can’t believe, because they’d won their previous match narrowly, there was any sense of complacency. 

Preparation, preparation, preparation. Some coaches just do it better than others. They communicate better, they have the gift of motivation. None has it all the time.

The match was a ripper! Hell, Fekitoa is a beautiful passer of a rugby ball; uses the swing pass perfectly, just checking the defence, hands low and the pass directed accurately to the receiver. It’s easy to make a negative comparison with players like Ebersohn and Goosen (playing in Europe) who run at their centres. Hopeless! Fekitoa, after a quiet couple of matches for him, scored two wonderful tries. The whole of the Highlanders team passed the ball quickly. It flew along the line and  led to Naholo’s first try and much breath-taking counter- attacking: a joy to behold.

The Stormers vs Force was a dull affair of one side kicking away possession and the other stultified in its efforts to run to victory. Schalk Burger was outstanding, often distributing from the flyhalf position. The best that can be said is that it was a four point victory for the visitors. De Allende, for one, looked half the player he had been against the Waratahs the previous week.

The Hurricanes did not play badly, but the Waratahs were at their brilliant best in Wellington. What a match! 5 tries in the first half! I haven’t seen Nonu play so incisively for ages. Foley had a great game again. So how did the Canes lose? Simple – one little lapse in concentration and technique: Ardie Savea dropped his one-handed placement of the ball over the tryline early on. 

The scores see-sawed from then on but the damage was done. There were exciting tries involving Hooper, Foley, Perenara. The visitors’ defence was solid throughout. Skelton was massive in midfield. So the Waratahs won in the end, 29 to 24. 

The Hurricanes lost because a player committed an inexcusably careless error. (The first time I ever saw a try scored with a one-hand touchdown was from the British Lions playing in SA in 1955. Prior to that, all my coaches at school, university and indeed all coaches instructed us to dive over with the ball in two hands. The one-handed touchdown was exciting and tempting. It looks good. It has the air of casual superiority. As the Kiwis would say, it’s ‘flash’. But it cost the Hurricanes a match.

The Chiefs out-thought and outplayed the Crusaders who were playing at home. The latter look a bit rudderless to me. McCaw looks like he’s ‘waiting for the World Cup’. Were I a Kiwi selector, he wouldn’t come near my team. How can anyone place him above Messum or Cane or even Taufua on current form, not to mention Kaino et al. Taufua looks like he has ingested a Rolls Royce engine revving at top speed. He’s devastating on the run. McCaw runs slowly and appears not to play too strong a leadership role on the field though it’s hard to tell. He also misses tackles these days.

There was some great play: I mean how does it get better than Sonny Bill Williams’ offload in the tackle, leading to interplay between the Will O’ The Wisp Nanai Williams and a consequent try by Liam Squire? Leitch at No. 8 was terrific, Lowe alert to any opportunity and with Leitch to shovel the ball to him from broken play, ran a full 60 metres for a wonderful try. The Crusaders missed too many tackles. You just can’t do that in this competition. So all in all, the Crusaders didn’t so much lose as get whacked by a superbly coached side who follow a game plan that works because it’s applied, and they also show flair. 

Carter, another who looks to have been worked out by other sides, did little to impress. His place-kicking has never been worse. 

This business of playing backline players who can’t kick with either foot can be critical. In this game, the Crusaders’ centre, Fonotia, an otherwise talented performer, received a long pass in his in-goal area. He was running to his left. All he had to do was kick the ball out with his left foot. Obviously, he can’t kick with his left foot and his coaches are happy with that or half-asleep. Well, guess what? He had to run, was tackled, the ball was hacked forward to the opposition, who with a bewildering sequence of passes, made the extra man and a try ensued. Unforgivable! This is supposed to be ‘professional’ rugby!

Rugby is about basics, basics, basics – with the flair and ingenuity to adapt to situations on the field at speed and with composure. Although they lost to a great team, the Crusaders will have to rethink from bottom up. More of the same will not do.

I haven’t really said anything substantive about the Bulls vs Sharks match and don’t feel like saying anything much. Pollard and Zeilinga played well but neither showed signs of dominating or even directing play. Do the Sharks actually have enough real talent in the backs? I mean how do Esterhuizen and Murray compare with the likes of Nonu, Sonny Bill, Crotty, Speight et al? In my view, nowhere near. They looked slow and muddled to me. I absolutely loved the blindside try worked by Paige and Hougaard for the Bulls, with the latter romping over; rugby at its best.

Well, in case you think I’m stupid, I know McCaw will lead NZ at the World Cup even though his play is patchy. It’s a bit like the John Smit situation for the Springboks a few years ago. With ordinary ball skills, some talent in the scrum and an average defender – remember the missed tackle on Nonu to lose the test at Soccer City? – Smit was retained for his leadership qualities. Fair enough. A clever, alert, reliable captain who can communicate self-belief is absolutely vital. The All Blacks, I’m sure, think Richie McCaw is that man. We’ll see.

Neil Jardine

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