Some observations on the great game

Musings about the role of the drop goal and its relative significance in rugby elicited three responses from friends and former players. Kingsley Went wrote – and passed on to many who read this column – his recollection of a drop that significantly changed the course of a match in 1965 between Rhodesia and Western Province in which we both played. 

From about forty metres out, I attempted a drop at goal. The ball sliced off my left boot and headed towards the corner flag. The Western Province players, perhaps bemused by the arrogance of the attempt, watched as the ball sailed left. Kingsley Went, on the wing, very quick, darted forward and, in a flash, dotted down. As it turned out, the ‘drop that failed’ and Kingsley’s alert response won us this important victory, the only one I played against WP in my career. (My opposite number, Mike Lawless, had a poor game and Dave Stewart at fullback in place of HO de Villiers, for some crazy reason, was a ‘disaster’.

This may look a bit self-serving but it’s Neville Leck writing about this match in his book ‘HO, A Biography Of Courage’. ‘....HO was dropped for the match against Rhodesia and might very well have remained in the shadows had not Rhodesia’s cagey flyhalf, Neil Jardine, carved up the luckless Dave Stewart, Western Province’s Springbok flyhalf and centre pressed into service at fullback for the game. HO commented ‘Neil was always an exceptionally good kicker of the ball, but on that day he was uncanny. He had poor Dave running all over the place chasing shadows. I remember thinking to myself this is a good game to miss.’ ”p. 78.

The only other victory against the WP by Rhodesia had come when, as Southern Rhodesia, the visitors won a close match at Newlands in 1947. On that day, Des van Jaarsveld, later Rhodesian and Springbok captain on the flank, played on the wing. He was seventeen years old.

The ‘other’ drop, referred to above, was recalled by two former Rhodes University friends: Lorraine Mullins and Tony Voss, the latter a member of the RU ‘Thirsty Thirds’, coached by Peter Snyder, whose promising career as a flank had been cut short by knee trouble. This particular kick, which clearly lives in the memory of some who were there, occurred in a match on the Great Field at Rhodes University and the visiting team, Cradock Rovers, a tough team of hardy, gnarled forwards and speedy backs. 

Notable among their forwards was their captain, Tobie Niemand, a provincial player, who, it was rumoured, by snobby academics, was ‘thick in the arm and thick in the head’. One story of legendary and doubtful authenticity had it that when Tobie was asked what he thought of Shakespeare, he asked,  “ Who does he play for?”

In the last minute, I received the ball from a lineout, via scrumhalf, Colin Wright, (later to play for Wanderers Club, Johannesburg, where he was the only member of the backline who was not a Springbok. His three-quarters were : wings Nomis and Johnstone, centres Rosenberg and Kaminer and Norman Bridger at flyhalf). Ignoring the pleas of Bernie Meyers on the right wing for a pass, I dropped the ball through the posts. The final whistle went. Our coach, Eric Norton, famous coach of St.Andrew’s College and later headmaster there, rushed on to the field to check with the ref – someone with a dubious reputation -that the drop had ensured victory. It had.

Bernie Meyers, of Bulawayo, where his dad ran a leather business, had matriculated at Kingswood College in Grahamstown some three years before. At school he could do no better than play at No. 8 for the second team. His coach, a famed and feared wing for Stellenbosch and Western Province in the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties, Ken Watson, failed to spot Bernie’s extraordinary elusiveness and speed. At RU, Bernie became a wing, played brilliantly for the Ist XV and for Eastern Province. Later he represented Old Miltonians, Matabeleland and Rhodesia.

For Rhodes, Bernie and I used the ‘inside pass’, flyhalf to right wing coming in at speed from a scrum and in broken play to great effect. Another ploy, not used today because the scrumhalf does the ‘box kick’ ( to little positive result in my opinion), was what we called the ‘hook kick’. I would run left, feint to kick a diagonal towards the far touchline, then swivel and ‘hook’ the ball back high towards the right corner flag where Bernie would pounce. Many tries ensued. I used it throughout my career.

Meyers was the laziest player of my time. At university, where he lingered for an extra year, owing to an inability to pass Biology One, he would duck the initial training by hiding under the stack of raincoats on the side of the field. No tracksuits then of course. As the tight practice was called, he would emerge, to dazzle all with his dexterous speed and guile. When he tired of foxing the opposition, dodging to and fro across the field, he would sometimes, toss the ball into touch, not a popular move with his team mates. He was inspirational and infuriating. (He finally passed Biology owing, he told me, only after he had escorted the unattractive daughter of the Professor to a number of films at the local ‘bioscope’.)

Eric Norton, our coach in 1956, Springbok cricketer, (Cheetham’s tour of Australia in 1953/4) and Junior Springbok No. 8, was an amazingly astute coach. I still remember a move he taught me, which he called, ‘Elvidge’ after a great All Black centre with Fred Allen’s tourists in 1949. It was worked from a centre scrum. The flyhalf would feint left, then run right as his left centre sprinted outside him to take a pop pass and create an overlap for the right wing. Eric coached the talented Hugh Rowley at St. Andrew’s and rated him the greatest player of his era as a school coach. 

Of course, Rowley was an amazing talent, the best exponent of blindside flyhalf play I encountered in my long career. He would take the ball flat, ease through the half gap and send his wing away. If he had a fault, it was in his erratic tactical kicking, but as a distributor, he was very gifted.

The Super 15 series remains fascinating viewing, skills and application out of the top drawer. The most exciting match of the weekend was the encounter between the Lions and Cheetahs. Both sets of coaches are prepared to indulge flair and imagination. It was a pity one side had to lose. The tries of Harold Vorster, Cornall Hendricks, Francois Venter, Faf de Klerk, Ryan Combrinck, Greeff (Good Greeff!) and others will live long in the memory. Joe Pietersen had another fine game as did Jantjies, who improves with every match. 

I was impressed to hear Johan Ackerman, head coach of the Lions, say at the interval that he had advised ‘Patience, of course. And self-belief.” Nothing about micro-tactics or ‘keeping the ball tight’. He saw the bigger picture. He and his coaching squad have produced a team prepared to attack at every opportunity and their defence is rock-solid. Some attributed the number of tries in the game to poor defence, but I agree with Naas Botha, who said on TV, that it was more the brilliance of the running and stepping than poor tackling which explained the breaks. Support play was of the highest order and passing slick. Mapoe’s offloads put him in the Sonny Bill class.

The Stormers vs Bulls affair was a disappointment, victory being ground out on a platform of resolute defence and tactical kicking. Catrakilis is a magician with penalty goals. Pollard took his chances but, at the crucial moments towards the end of the match, he failed to show the common sense which demanded a drop goal to win the match. Yes, he did attempt one late in the day after receiving a terrible pass from the erratic van Zyl. It was charged down. 

With a few minutes to go, I was absolutely horrified by Pollard’s decision, inside the Stormers’ red zone, to kick an up-and-under, instead of a drop. If I have to explain the Bulls defeat then, Pollard lost it for them. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but with only two points in it, he failed the test. (The scrums were a disaster for the visitors; I agree with Nick Mallett’s view that infringements in the front row should be punished with short-arm free kicks, not penalties.) The refereeing was pedantic.

For the rest, the Waratahs played in spurts against a game Rebels team, who nearly brought off a surprise victory. Foley’s attempts at goal were very poor indeed for a kicker of his quality. They were lucky to win by two points. The Rebels have only themselves to blame for unacceptable indiscipline – at one stage they were penalised eight times straight!

This business of mental preparation and conditioning before a game is vital and difficult. How do you motivate a team one week and fail to connect the next? Or the other way round.  Take the Crusaders who, after a dreadful display last week, produced a performance of great quality against the now-expected disappointing effort from the Blues. McCaw was awake again, Read was more focused, although one NZ commentator made the remark that ‘Read is looking ahead to the World Cup.’ Interesting. The Crusaders’ running and passing were superb. Four brilliant tries, the use of Nadolo as point-man, the initiative of Crotty, Tom Taylor, Codie Taylor –all first class. Slade is the complete flyhalf. He has all the skills.

I suppose I’m old fashioned but the lineout rolling maul fails to impress me. I mean what’s so great about taking the ball across the tryline with seven players in front of you, whom the opposition are forbidden from tackling? So Pocock’s three tries in the Brumbies vs Highlanders match were nothing short of a big yawn for me. This move is simply legalised obstruction. And, while I’m on the soapbox, putting the ball into the scrum under the locks’ feet is now routine. What idiots on the international refs board and the IRB can continue to countenance this affront to common sense let alone fair play? And when it comes to straight throws at the lineout? Out come these Mother Grundys with their tut-tutting pettiness: ‘Not a centimetre offline or I’ll give a scrum to your opponents.’ It’s crazy.

The Reds improved considerably in their match against the Hurricanes, who were patchy, from brilliant to pedestrian. But the visitors just had too much power and overall skill for the home team, who played with a will. Hell, Gill is a great loose forward, Nonu a wonderful centre, Smith the prince of straight running, Kerevi a surprise newcomer with great ability and Barrett and Perenara a very committed halfback pair. 

I hope the Bulls do well Down Under. It would be great if we had two teams in the semi-finals.

Neil Jardine

(I didn’t even mention the wonderfully talented and committed Lions flanks, Tecklenburg and Kriel – what great players!)

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