World Cup Rugby 2015 – The Final Stages

What a success it has all been. The gap between the minor countries and the major playing nations has narrowed. Sportsmanship was at a very high level. The Wallabies and All Blacks gave an exhibition in the final of how the modern game should be played.

South Africa played well to defeat Argentina comprehensively for third place. Pollard kicked nearly all the penalties at goal; balanced, rhythmical, accurate. There was a greater urgency throughout. As one commentator remarked ‘Where has this backline been until now?’ Passing was much improved, cohesion between backs and forwards impressive, defence sound. (I said last week that Pollard couldn’t break on the outside. Well, in this match he made a great outside break in the opponents’ red zone and it’s a pity his loop pass to Habana was too high.) Etzebeth’s try in the second half was, for me, the best scored by the Springboks in the tournament. It came after Pollard switched play to the blind side: quick pass to Kriel, to Habana, to Kriel, back to Habana and swiftly to Etzebeth: wonderful. 

It is quite obvious that the forward-based strategy played a disproportionate part in the Boks’ play on the field: in my view, conservative to a fault. Typical old-style Springbok rugby – subdue and penetrate. Bring on the heavy roller. Well, the truth is we subdued at times but seldom penetrated. With Meyer’s dismissive approach to a fifteen-man game, it will be more of the same while he’s making the major decisions. It is plain he and his supporting coaches have little or no faith in our three-quarters. In the Sunday Times 2015-11-02, Coach Meyer is quoted as saying that ‘we have to continue as before as we do not have enough talented backline players in the country’. I was shocked. How much does he know? What do his talent-spotters tell him? 

I’ll cut to the chase. Matfield and de Villiers should never have been at the World Cup; Fourie du Preez, talented though he is, was predictable and – apart from his great try against Wales – not much of a game-changer. Sentiment played far too big a role in selection. It seems to me quite clear we have in South Africa centres who break the line week-in week-out. To mention a few: Burger Odendaal (Bulls), Francois Venter (Cheetahs) and a couple from the Lions, Janse van Rensburg and Mnisi perhaps. But these strong, elusive runners are beyond the parameters of Meyer’s view of things. He likes dependable, predictable back play, founded on solid head-down attack where his centres become clones of the loose-forwards. His negative observation about backs can only do harm. Although for Heyneke Meyer, three-quarters are bit players in a stage play written for forwards, the truth is we had very poor backline coaching in this tournament. Don’t blame the players. In some crucial areas, our coaches were not up to the task.

The Boks did not lose out on a chance to play in the final because they played that badly. They tried hard and there were some great moments, but it’s a fifteen man game and only half our side were intensively coached. In the end we underperformed not because we lacked commitment, but because we were out-thought. Rugby has scrums, lineouts, mauls, rucks, loose play, passing, tackling, kicking etc, etc. Expertise must be shown in all those areas but to win consistently, teams have to be mentally prepared and planning has to be intelligent, thorough and original. Rugby matches are won through superior thinking because, ultimately, rugby is a thinking game. 

Dan Carter made a revealing comment after the final which I’ll bet the Bok coaching staff may well have missed. He said, “We try to do things other teams never try”. Is that rocket science? Hardly, but it indicates a state of mind founded in deep analysis leading towards a consistent journey on a road to victory after victory.

Towards the end of the tournament I must confess I became crabby with all the bullish!t about the highest try-scorers, past and present. What embarrassing inconsequential rubbish! Is this some sort of beauty pageant where vital statistics outweigh substance? I mean, some player gets a pass, falls over the try-line and he’s a media hero: our commentators, at their flakiest, were, at times, full of fake orgasmic excitement over whether Habana would break Lomu’s record. Pathetic. I’ll stick with Danie Craven’s view, unanswerable in my opinion: ‘Rugby is a team game. When a try is scored, please don’t let us watch exaggerated celebration of one player. Remember, fifteen men scored that try.’

There were many wonderful tries in the tournament. My favourite remains the one scored in the final by All Black right wing, Milner-Skudder, after brilliant and breathtaking interpassing and running off the ball by Conrad Smith, Aaron Smith and I think Richie McCaw – anyway the final pass was perfect and over the line went the mercurial little side-stepper. Pure joy for players and spectators alike. Incomparable skill born of detailed coaching. The New Zealanders are in a class of their own.

If much of my analysis throughout this World Cup has been weighted towards negative criticism of our coaches and our selections, I make no apology. The facts speak for themselves. Unlike Heyneke Meyer, I believe we have the talent to win another World Cup. But while our overall strategy is based on heavy artillery and tank battles, despite all the other attacking forces available, ultimate victory will elude us. On that mordant note, I head for the shed. It’s been fun. Mine’s a Scotch.

Neil Jardine
2 November 2015

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