This match, played last weekend on Saturday 8th October, was exhilarating for All Black supporters and a disaster for Springbok fans, analysts and followers of the game.
The All Blacks scored almost half their points in the last twenty minutes of the match to win by 57 to 15. Until the half time whistle, the Springboks had defended with good intent and motivation but, once again, missed too many vital tackles. The defence coach clearly has no idea of the importance of the smother tackle where man and ball are taken together. Surely the coaching staff must have noticed that the All Blacks have become masters of the offload in the tackle, that they seldom ‘die’ with the ball.
Apparently not. There seems little evidence that Allister Coetzee and his fellow coaches do any but the most cursory analysis of how their opponents play. My considered opinion is that the whole coaching staff is out of its depth. They learn nothing from match to match. The approach remains one of broad attention to the basic needs of any old team.
In this regard, I noticed a comment made by All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, in his post-match interview. He referred to the coaching of ‘micro-skills’! Does anyone think Coetzee and Co. can spell ‘micro-skills’ let alone understand what he’s talking about? He’s talking about detailed attention to every little aspect of a rugby match – how people pass, why they pass, how they kick, why they kick, how they link, why they link, how they retain possession, why they do not kick it away aimlessly, how they scrum, how they attack as a fifteen-man unit, how there must always be at least two men within seven metres of the ball-carrier and so on.
I must say I don’t see the All Blacks using the spin pass to excess. They’re too busy distributing it accurately. Ours do it all the time because they’ve done it at school and never rethought its dubious merits. Apart from long passes, it’s a curse, makes the ball harder to catch, it’s slower and invariably leads to the passer running towards the receiver. As for the ‘offload’, we attempted one in the entire match when de Allende, in a tackle, flipped the ball too hard and too high into Mapoe’s face for a ‘knock on’. How many times do we practise the offload? Under simulated pressure? At all?
Now, what did Allister Coetzee say to the team during the half-time break in this test? If he said, “Well done, we’re only seven points adrift, more of the same, we can win this”, he should be fired immediately. Does he never think of how the opponents are going to rethink their game and ratchet it up in the second half? Has he not noticed that the All Blacks reserve their main fire power for the last quarter? Did he say, “Look, they’re going to come at us harder. Our tackles have to be absolutely executed; we must win ball from defence. I’ll be counting your tackles and hope you will too. They are likely to spread the ball wide; we have to be ready, break down their momentum, steal possession, then run the ball with guile and shock tactics. Starve them of ball” etc. etc.
I’m dreaming of course. These words never crossed his mind. He is shockingly unaware of how to plan an eighty minute match. And that goes for his assistants as well. They are overpaid amateurs in a professional sport.
According to Nick Mallett, the whole structure of South African rugby must be changed and re-organised to promote greater unity of aim and focus on a national basis. On Super Sport, Ashwin Willemse challenged this, saying ‘If the Lions can do so well under this system, why can’t others?’ or words to that effect. Mallett’s reply was withering: ‘You miss the point entirely.’ Am I the only one to note an increasing tension and aggression between our ‘wise men’ on TV. Naas Botha is increasingly repetitive, abrasive and very defensive, Willemse and Paulse are hardly perceptive critics of the game, and Xola Ntshinga has now become our local ‘Mr. Expert’, dominating discussion at length. It looks like it’s getting to Mallett, driving him mad with frustration. It’s not a case of ‘paralysis by analysis’. It’s a fact that his co-commentators, apart from John Mitchell, are masters of superficial commentary and seat-of-the-pants observation.
So, for those who enjoy reminiscences from my career, let’s go back to days when there was not a national coach in Rhodesia, when we made do with a manager. The captain would run the ‘practice’ in the days before a game. We had no real preparation even before internationals, three of which I played in during my career: vs British Lions (1962), vs Wallabies (1963) and vs Argentina (1965). The policy was that if you played in one international, you got your Rhodesian blazer. To gain it through normal interprovincial competition, you had to represent the country three times. So, to give a couple of examples, Noel ‘Pokey’ Dollar (hooker) played against the British Lions and has his blazer; Nick Hopper (eighth man), among others, played in two matches vs Natal and Western Province and does not have one.
I captained Rhodesia to an unbeaten season in 1965; a shortened season, but unbeaten nevertheless. We beat Argentina, Western Province and drew with Far North, in those days a province. Before the Argentina match, (which saw me become the first Old Selbornian to captain his country in an IRB-recognised international) I prepared as well as I knew and recommended a cautious game plan against a side rumoured to be great counter-attackers and ferocious scrummagers. I said we would play the match in their half, take our points and attack with good ball.
We won the match 17-11. The sad part though is that as I prepared to kick for goal to seal the match a significant minority of the crowd booed me loudly. What they expected me to do remains a mystery. Was I supposed to ‘tip and run’, refuse the points.....it boggles the mind. In an interview the next day with the Sunday Mail, I expressed my disappointment at the lack of patriotic support. I said I felt as Tony Pithey must have felt on so many occasions, batting his heart out for his country, when he too was derided with a slow handclap. That year I was chosen as one of the finalists in the Sportsman Of The Year competition; my fellow-finalists were Tony Pithey, Colin Bland ( with whom I had played in the Rhodes University Ist XI in 1957), Enid Spence, the national women’s hockey captain and Alec Croxwell (Sp?), marksman of note. Ali Bacher, guest of honour, handed the trophy at the dinner’s end to Colin Bland, a worthy winner.
Back to this recent disastrous test in which the Springboks were humiliated by the All Blacks. The visitors won by 42 points! Unbelievable! The final twenty minutes saw carnage. Could it have been avoided? To be fair, is this not one of the greatest NZ teams of all time? Would any other coach have made a difference? Well I am sure Nick Mallett or John Mitchell (even allowing for his infamous lack of so-called ‘people skills’) could have stopped the bleeding. For a start, they would have insisted on form players being picked. Selection of the national team has been and remains a disgrace.
Now there’s an indaba to discuss and regroup. Let’s hope it’s not all hot air. We have become a nation of imbizos, indabas, bos-beraads; anything rather than to take responsibility and get the job done.