Rugby 2-3 July

Written 5 July 2016

I couldn't find time to watch all the Super 18 matches so missed the Crusaders' defeat to the Chiefs and more importantly, missed the match where the Bulls lost to the Jaguares in Argentina. This result sends out a clear warning to those sides still to play the Jaguares; don't underestimate them at home. So, having read that the Lions were considering 'resting' some of their better players before proceeding across the Atlantic for their away match, I thought 'think again'.

I have mixed feelings about 'resting' players. I know injuries are a constant worry but it's not as though injuries are new to the game. In my 25 years playing rugby, I broke both wrists, a left leg, had ligaments torn off my lower back, have a nose with damaged linings courtesy of my face being smashed into the turf by one Stubbs of UCT in 1958. Then there's the jaw which is a bit squiff. So don't step up if you aren't aware of the challenges.

Which brings me to the 'resting' policy. Why? It's not as though the players are in matches three times a week. They are in peak condition and superbly fit and strong. And injuries can happen anywhere. Take the case of Handre Pollard. At a Bulls' practice, with no one within five metres of him, he ran, fell awkwardly, injured his knee and is out for a year. The best team must take the field.

Today's players are paid a 'fortune' for playing rugby. Spectators expect to watch the full Ist XV turn out. Most people work eight hours, five days a week. The rugby players have a week of four days intensive training and exercising. Then they have a light 'captain's run' on Friday. Not too heavy I would say. Let's not treat them like prima donnas. I'm told the training for ballet is far more taxing. So the Lions better analyse how the Bulls lost on the pampas and select accordingly.

Last word on this: when cricket coaches began talking of resting players in test series, former Australian captain, Steve Waugh, was scathing. 'In a test,' he said, 'while other people are working a full day, the cricketers spend only half the match on the field. For the rest, they're sitting in the pavilion or getting a massage. Stop this feeble nonsense!'

The Lions again played magnificent positive, aggressive, controlled and skilled rugby against the Sharks on Saturday last. Every part of the game was prepared and tight play was great. Then the fifteen-man strategy came into play after possession and the result was a flood of tries: 37-10. The Sharks coach, Gary Gold, was generous in his praise of the Lions players and the coaching team, saying they could go all the way. Of course it's too early for that prediction to be taken seriously.

The Sharks did not perform poorly but there is much more critical analysis and thinking required from players and coaches. There was no discernible pattern to their play and, at flyhalf, the talented young Chris April, played neatly but without enough vision. I know how hard it is to perform with dominance behind a 'losing' pack. 

But, let's take one example: in the 50th minute with his team down 30-0, April received good ball on his ten-metre line. Did he think, 'Hell let's run at them and chip to re-gather', or 'let's try the half break and the grubber', or 'I'll feint left and join up with my players on the right'?

The answer to the above is 'None of them!' What did he do? He kicked the ball mindlessly straight down the field to a Lions player and a devastating counter-attack occurred. His decision was clueless and inexcusable. I hope the coaches show him the clip and ask what on earth he was thinking. 

A similar thing happened in the Stormers vs Rebels match in Melbourne, when flyhalf du Plessis kicked downfield, apparently aiming for the touchline. It did not go out, the Rebels counter-attacked and Debreczeni went over under the poles. I wanted to shout, 'If you're kicking for touch, kick the bloody thing out!' But then, duPlessis used his left foot to kick for the left touch-line and pulled the ball infield, another 'one-footed wonder'.

In this particular match, the Stormers, with 20 minutes to go, were level with the home side at 31-31. Then came the transformation from a team which, for me, has been disappointingly negative and conservative throughout, particularly against strong teams. Now, it was as though they had been freed from a cage of imprisonment. A flock of players suddenly flew out and about the field, passing, handling, running and driving like world champions.

Here one must mention the scrums where the Stormers were so dominant the Rebels battled to get off the back foot. Although they played well enough to score 31 points and stay in the game until the sixtieth minute, psychologically they were destroyed. The power of the visitors' front five and their back three drove them off the ball time and again. This led to points and territorial advantage. If the Stormers can play as they played in the last quarter, they could come through well. Stranger things have happened.

I watched again in awe and with appreciation as two New Zealand teams gave an exhibition of how rugby should be played. I'm referring to the derby between the Blues of Auckland and the Hurricanes of Wellington. All players performed at a very high level with speed, force, drive, and all skills expertly executed. Above all, the match was played in a blaze of dynamic energy and purpose. Every player knew that everything should be done at speed. Tight forwards ran like backs. Support and linking up were superb. The will to win was palpable. Exhilarating! I couldn't help thinking as I watched the great pair of Hurricanes' centres, Aso and Procter, 'these guys don't even make the national squad! Barrett was great. I hope Naas Botha noticed. 

Until next week, let's keep the ball going towards the tryline. 'Forward, the Buffs!' But not, I would hope, with Douglas Haig as captain at, for example, the Somme. He had his chance and blew it. Big time. Now there was a captain without a brain in his head. He knew only one thing. Give the ball to the 'front five' and hurtle towards the line and victory. Did he know the Germans had machine guns? When I pass his statue in Whitehall, London, I always quietly curse him for the soldiers who died from his arrogant stupidity.

But then it makes me think of another soldier from that war, one Adolf Hitler. He rethought his whole strategy after Munich 1923 and went on in the war with his blitzkrieg approach to win, by fair means and foul, and win well. But then success went to his head. He thought, like other arrogant leaders, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Fatal. The other 'team' regrouped, defended like heroes at Leningrad and Stalingrad and out-manouvered him. Egotism, narcissism, and inflexibility did him in in the end. Rugby coaches take note.

To end, a non-rugby story which may be of interest. Hitler was an artist living in Linz, Austria. In 1912, the Vienna School of Art advertised a scholarship. Hitler was one of two who reached the finals. He lost. The other artist, Egon Schiele, won. Hitler found another career, so to say. The rest is history.

Neil Jardine

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