Last week I didn’t even mention the dynamic Damian McKenzie, his skills, attack, distribution – another great flyhalf from the antipodes! If the Chiefs had discipline they’d be on top or second. They are physical to the point of dangerous stupidity. Maybe the Bulls are concentrating too much on discipline? Silly remark, but they seem to have lost their drive, concentration, there’s no ‘risk factor’, skills are erratic, enough leadership? I don’t think so. Is it fear of failure? Is coach Ludeke rethinking his analytical skills? Doesn’t look like it. The Bulls are in ‘neutral’. No spark.
Despite the victory, the Sharks still lack cohesion and a pattern. Things happen like Heimar Williams’ brilliant break and try, one of the best of the competition, but it’s not ‘of a piece’. In this match, one could not blame the standard of passing; the Sharks’ handling was pathetic. What were the commentators thinking, talking about a ‘slippery’ ball. The Kiwis play with one nearly all the time. That’s no excuse. The Sharks strike me this season as a group of very good amateurs – professional? No.
In the Chiefs vs Highlanders game, I couldn’t help noticing once again how attack is launched from all over the field. The mind-set is confident attack. The Chiefs play Hika Elliott wide, near the wing. He’s the No. 2 prop – you can’t call him a ‘hooker’, no one actually hooks the ball anymore – so he throws the ball in at the lineouts and then hangs wide. Hlds’s do the same with flank Evans, the Crusaders with Read. I haven’t seen a SA side do this and can’t really see the benefit. Perhaps I’m missing something. Maybe they have worked out that the forward out wide is more likely to be faced by a weak back. (Did you see a ref actually blowing up a ‘crooked’ put-in? Yes it happened and then not again despite continual infringements. I remember a SA ref from yesteryear, Bertie Strasheim, who told me at a Rhodesian coaching seminar, he always blew the scrumhalf up first or second scrum, then they put it in straight and tightheads could occur.)
The Highlanders were in awesome form against a disorganised Chiefs outfit. There was no focus from the visitors. H’s used big wings at flyhalf, Osborne and Naholo, grubbers, brilliant short-passing. Not a man seemed to lose concentration for a moment. Naholo’s try was powerful and an example of brilliant running off and with the ball. (By the way, did you read that Aaron Smith won ‘Maori Player of the Year’ last season! Just imagine the furore if we had a ‘Coloured Player of the Year’ or a ‘Black Player of the Year’ or an ‘English-Speaking Player of the Year’! Different history in NZ; different culture.)
Quade Cooper and Genia were great for the Reds in a mediocre game. They showed after a long time why they were once the first choice half-back pair for the Wallabies. Hayley-Petty strikes me as a fine player for the Force; he’s everywhere and strong in attack. I can’t work out why the Force don’t involve Cummins more by bringing him into the line. He’s a line-breaker and wasted at the moment. I mean you don’t have to be a genius to know that, with variations on a theme, all victories in rugby are based on playing to your strengths and your opponents’ weaknesses.
So, the Lions played a brilliant match against the current champions, the Waratahs. I think, apart from the attention to skills, basics and team-spirit, the Lions coaching squad, under the impressive Johan Ackerman, have developed self-belief to a new level. He said it last week and so it turned out. ‘On the day, any team can beat any other’. The Lions ran the ball from all over the place, but not unthinkingly. Each player knew there would be support on either side of the runner. I was rapt as I watched the balanced performance of Jantjies, the controlled running of Combrinck, the effervescent Faf! and of course the relentlessly driving Jaco Kriel. The match was a joy to watch. For the visitors, Ashley-Cooper was in fine form again. As to the final result, I’m sure I saw the Waratahs turn down two kickable penalties and in the end they lost by 5 points. Who’s doing the thinking?
Stormers were in great form against a weak Cheetahs outfit. Some lovely running by the backs, driving by the forwards.
I heard John Mitchell, former coach of All Blacks, Force, Lions, say ‘The Brumbies play a South African template game’. What does he mean? ‘Subdue and penetrate’? ‘Too many box kicks’? ‘Too conservative’? ‘Too many chip kicks’? ‘Too much gaining grounds’?
I’m not sure. What I do know is that unless SA teams begin rethinking ‘root and branch’ – as I’d say the Lions are doing at present with, for example, their first box-kick coming in the 44th minute – and develop the confidence to keep the ball and think ‘tryline’, we are going to meander on way behind the NZ sides who mainline flair and self-confidence.