Written 20 March 2016
Overall the standard of play is excellent, marked by sound forward cohesion and commitment and backs who have thought about what they have to do to merit possession. That being said, I still think some of the coaches are too content with mediocre performances. There remains insufficient attention to detail. The bar is still set too low for some teams. Expectations need to be raised and insisted upon.
The weakest part of backline play remains tactical kicking. Far too much ball is kicked inaccurately up field, thus nullifying the good ball won by the forwards. To take one example, Robert du Preez of the Stormers, kicks every tactical kick too far! You don’t have to be a genius to know that tactical kicking is there to RETAIN possession. How many coaches stress that? Some seem to be satisfied with long loopy kicks down the middle of the field to ‘keep the opposition in their own half’. Well the best way to do that is to kick so that your players arrive at the point of contact as the ball comes down.
Passing is better among the top teams but even then, skills are variable. I watched the Lions back line, on two occasions against the Cheetahs, pass the ball to the right with every pass going behind the receiver’s hip. Consequence? Every player receiving the pass had to check. Result? Loss of momentum and forward drive. Not good enough. Make them practise that fifty times every time they are coached until it’s perfect. A leaf needs to be taken out of the professional golfer’s handbook: if you play a bad shot, you lose money! So golfers work harder. What if rugby players – and cricketers who bowl wides – were fined a thousand rands for every careless mistake? I think concentration would take a dramatic leap forward.
It is common knowledge that backs are under-coached compared with the attention given to forwards. It seems to be a traditional thing and an error which costs many teams dear. Lying in hospital recently after an op on my Achilles tendon, I chatted to a young man who played scrumhalf for one of Johannesburg’s top boys’ schools first teams. When I asked if the backs were coached as intensively as the forwards, he smiled and said, ‘Not even half as much.’ It’s crazy!
I mean there are about fifteen scrums per game on average. A few lead to tries near the opposing side’s goal line; a few lead to penalty tries. But for the rest, they are a farce. The ball is put under the locks’ feet. No one hooks. Every one pushes. The ball often comes out slowly. The scrumhalves, even without their opponents coming round at them, battle to pass good ball. I wonder what the ratio is of time spent on coaching scrumming and the actual value to a team on the field of play.
The Stormers planned well for their encounter against the talented Brumbies, who are cleverly coached in all departments. But the Stormers stuck to their game plan, kept the Brumbies pinned down in their own half through excellent running and pinpoint kicking. Their defence was solid. The Brumbies lost composure under pressure. The foul on Kebble came from sustained attacks by the Stormers and consequent ill temper from two dumb forwards leading to a red card.
So the victory was well-deserved, but if the try awarded to Leyds was a try, I’m a Dutchman. Ridiculous! Coleman had a fine game, making good decisions. He is a calm and balanced flyhalf. ( I hope Nick Mallett has noticed. Last year he ‘rubbished ‘ him before an important game. Now he never comments let alone praises what Coleman does well.)
The Lions continue on their merry way with superb support play and everything done at speed. Skosan is a delight. When he gets the ball it’s as though a battery is switched on and his intrusions into the backline are well-timed. He and Jantjes work well together. Mnisi continues to impress with powerful running and support play. The Lions may have lost anyway to the Highlanders a week or so ago but they sealed their fate with two inexcusable errors – one a low looped pass which Maddes intercepted to run sixty metres for a try and the other when the Lions forgot rugby is an 80 minute game. They lost momentary concentration, Ben Smith threw in quickly at a lineout, Aaron Smith and he interpassed. Try! The margins between defeat and victory can be that small.
Poor Joe Pieterson who missed a sitter for the Sharks against the Bulls, a kick which would have would have won them the match. I couldn’t help thinking when the penalty was awarded about the excessive congratulations poured all over Marcel Coetzee who was great over the ruck ball. But the loud drooling back slapping could have done little for the concentration of Pieterson who was preparing to kick.
One might ask how the Highlanders allowed the Waratahs to come back from 7-30 to get within four points at the end. Elementary my dear Watson! Ben Smith forgot to lead and captain his team; he was nowhere when he should have been everywhere getting his team to rethink and regroup. Captains have to be thinking all the time!
I once played in a club game in Rhodesia against Gwelo Sports Club and with twenty-five minutes to go, we, Victoria Sports Club, were down 6-22; far behind as tries then counted only three. Behind the tryline I tried to rally my troops and then lost my cool. I spoke harshly along the lines of ‘what the hell did we travel here for?’ etc. Not to be recommended on many occasions, but somehow it ‘worked’ and we played with determination and skill to draw 28-28.
What a great game rugby union is. I am proud to have played the game for 25 years and that doesn’t include my two matches for Old Crocks against the Michaelhouse first team in my forties – or a couple of matches in Sunday afternoon fun matches with Gordon Paterson. Giving up was hard. I wonder when Schalk Burger will call it a day? He’s still full of energy but a touch predictable these days.