Despite the plethora of matches in the Super 18 competition, I have managed to watch quite a few. The model is unwieldy but it’s rewarding to watch the creative running game of the Cheetahs, Sunwolves and Jaguares. The Lions in the South African contest, remain focused and very good at support play and finishing. In this regard their win against the Stormers at Newlands was an example of clever planning, acute analysis and application of a plan.
Although I have been sceptical of the influence of scrums in the modern game, the Lions’ first scrum against the Stormers seemed to give the visitors a psychological advantage. The Stormers, for most of the match, were ‘on the back foot’. I was surprised to see the Lions ‘close down the game’ with fifteen minutes to go. It was clearly a planned strategy: keep possession and play ‘tight’. It worked. Thinking triumphed over complacency.
Perhaps that’s unfair to the Stormers’ coaching staff and the players. But, after five matches unbeaten, and usually successful in previous encounters against the Lions, the home team looked woefully underprepared. Not for the first time, they became a victim of the dubious adage ‘ if it works, don’t fix it’. There seemed to be little work done on how the Lions were planning to play.
Surely Robbie Fleck and his co-coaches knew that their tactics were being minutely explored and plotted against by the Lions’ analysts? It didn’t look like it. The subsequent disaster against the Crusaders confirms this suspicion. They have to ‘think again’. Western Province/Cape arrogance is a ‘given’. The commentators in this game e.g. Matthew Pearce among others, speak with awe about the local side. Are they ‘too close’ to them? After three matches they were already conferring Springbok colours on the modestly talented Daniel du Plessis. Is this because his father and uncle played for the Boks? If so, it’s ridiculous. du Plessis had a few good games till he hit high-level competition. Welcome to the real world.
The standard of the game in the Northern Hemisphere looks very high. England have played some ‘total rugby’ with no weaknesses apparent in any area of play. That’s, of course, the ‘Eddie Jones factor’. What a wonderful career he has had. Wales flattered to deceive. They lost against England when they should have won. Why? Well, it grieves me to repeat an obvious answer: with four minutes to go, Jonathan Davies at centre received a pass from the scrumhalf. Now Davies is another ‘OFW’. For the uninitiated, that’s ‘One-Foot Wonder’ in my lexicon. He, like S.P Marais and Curwin Bosch, can’t kick with his ‘other foot’, in this case his right foot. Result? He kicked ‘against’ the left touchline with his left foot, pulled it and Daly trotted in to score. England had won. Excusable? Of course not. Do I think the Wales coach, Rob Howley, will have Davies out practising touch kicks with his right foot. Don’t be silly. It’s obvious he doesn’t think it’s important. For any thinking coach, it’s vital.
How did Curwin Bosch, the promising but over-praised young Sharks flyhalf get the ‘Man of the Match Award’ against the Lions? His side lost. Why? He missed touch by going for too much distance when he didn’t need to, a fact Nick Mallett alluded to very late in the after match discussion on TV. Why so late? The mistake, from which the Lions scored, sealed victory for the home team. Did the “Wise Men’ of Super Sport make much of that? No, it just did not merit any serious comment. I despair.
I wish all South African teams the best of luck in the Antipodes, where the real students of the game lurk and plan, where hookers and loose-forwards hang wide, create the extra man and win convincingly week-in week-out. Is Allister Coetzee learning from them? We’ll see.