The Woes of the Springboks... Hope Springs Eternal
Written 23 November 2016
Allister Coetzee is clearly no fool. His tenure at WP/the Stormers indicates he can coach or at least manage professional rugby players. It’s a moot point, of course for all sports, whether the players flatter the coach or the coach makes silk purses out of sow’s ears. In the case of the present Springbok debacle, Coetzee and his assistants are not making sow’s purses out of silk, the silk is of inferior quality and the seamstresses – Coetzee et al – need a refresher course. In play there is very little stitching that stands up to the rigours of test rugby. Our sow’s ear purses split at the seams and tear when even the suggestion of pressure is applied. Our fingers stick out through the fabric. Poor suppliers, poor skills and hence poor workmanship. The equation is neat.
As Coetzee and his aides have served their apprenticeships for the full time – and they have – the question remains ‘what have they learned?’ It’s one thing to get the diploma, quite another to show that it has given the graduate the skills required and the ability to apply them. Clearly there must be a reconsideration of planning and structure on a national scale. After the England and Italy matches, what is one to make of our defensive strategies? They are parlous and porous. We have had three defence ‘coaches’ in six months! What imbecile is making the appointments?
The current Springbok squad does not defend adequately let alone decisively. It goes through the motions with great and commendable determination. But there is no evidence to show they are aware that the purpose of the tackle is not only to stop the carrier, but to prevent him from ‘off-loading’ and indeed rob him of possession. Elementary enough one would think, but I fear our coaches have not thought that through to any discernible level. Do we practise this skill often enough? I’d say definitely not effectively enough. And, the thought occurs, do we coach how to regain balance to make an effective tackle on the inside when the player jinks that way. It’s not easy but it can be taught. It’s about footwork. I mean I must assume the running patterns of Ben Smith have been analysed to the nth degree and defensive positions adapted accordingly.
Passing remains ‘iffy’ with no real surety of delivery and receipt. It’s a hit and miss affair. I will again say there is no evidence our players practise the ‘offload’ in the tackle in any useful way. We lose the ball time after time. I emphasise once more without apology, how poor passing is ‘to the right’ in comparison with ball directed to the left. The statistics bear me out. So why do we not practise ‘passing to the right’ twice as often as ‘to the left’? In the match against Italy, Combrink received the ball on the left wing with the tryline in sight. He attempted a pass inside to Habana (?), who could not gather as the ball was directed below the knee. The commentator’s remark, ‘Poorly knocked on’!! What he should have said was ‘Poor pass under pressure’. The same thing happened in the Baa-baas match when R.G. Snyman had a pass directed at his shins when he was in full cry. The comment? ‘Knocked on’. Now who the hell expects a man of 6ft 7” to take a pass below his knees? Apparently all those who do not think about the game in detail. Most commentators love their jobs but there is no evidence of ‘debriefing’ so they can improve.
Now, money! Of course it is right and proper that players, coaches et al should be paid and paid well in terms of policy. But I cannot accept that the acquisition of money has now replaced loyalty in the crudest way, in the lives of so many. Let me hasten to say that one cannot blame players for taking the Japan or French opportunities in view of the huge amounts of remuneration available. But are there no limits? How the hell do we have Brendan Venter, former Springbok centre (named ‘an out-and out thug’ by Matt Dawson), write wordy, imprecise and, in my opinion, hastily-thought-through articles for The Times (South Africa), host a hyped Springbok indaba one week and then hop off to Italy to coach them in defence skills before the match against the Boks! Whose side is he on?! Now I see I can avail myself of the opportunity to attend a breakfast affair for thousands of rands to hear Nick Mallett repeat what he says every week on Super Sport and hear the views of this Venter fellow, fresh back from the fleshpots of the Eternal City. Pardon me, I need a moment or two to throw up.
A reader of this column asked me to describe how I would coach the national team. Well, I’ve had the privilege of listening to the likes of John Mitchell, Nick Mallett and other experts, been coached by Griff Mullins, Ted Rivett-Carnac at St. Andrew’s Prep, by the legendary Neil Emslie at Selborne College, by Eric Norton, ‘Doolie’ Muller and Attie Maree at Rhodes University and later by Bob Rogers in Rhodesia...and also advised by the late, great rugby thinker Piet van Zyl of Kalomo, Northern Rhodesia.... so why not lay it all out? What has stopped me up till now, is the fear that everything I say will have been done by the coaching staff and simply not applied by the players. But, after the international against Wales I shall, regardless of the result and comments, put my coaching master plan on paper. For fun....well sort of fun.
I loved coaching rugby at First and Second Team level with all the systems required, from fitness to diet to muscular development to basic skills to situational drills, not to mention kicking, the most under-coached part of current Springbok rugby. I am not the only one to note that we kick away more possession than any other international team. Why? I think we lack confidence at the back. The ‘box-kick’ has now become a mindless routine regardless of the result. From the scrumhalf’s body position anyone on the opposing side can see he’s going to kick it down the touchline. Also, anyone with half a brain knows Perenara, for example, won’t kick it down the left touchline from a tight scrum because he can’t kick with his right foot. So? So you position yourself accordingly!
I looked through a book on rugby in Eastern Province and Border recently. It dealt with school’s rugby. I was so proud to see a photo of the Kingswood College side, captained by my uncle Lawrie Gray (also First XI captain and headboy) in 1918, a side containing three later Springboks – Bennie and Stanley Osler and Jack Slater, headmaster of Kingswood in the fifties. Then I glanced at the Muir College Ist team of 1944 to see one Tren Robey, cousin of my wife June, a scrumhalf who later played for EP. It’s a good read, written by Syd Dugmore.
In the section on Selborne College there is a passage about the 1952 season, which reads, ‘in a most thrilling game of rugby in Queenstown, Ollie Hughes, the Selborne captain and hooker, ran practically the whole length of the field’, dummying first to one side then the other (bamboozling the QC defenders) until he scored. The crowd loved it....... Included in the undefeated Selborne third team that day was Neil Jardine, later to make his mark for Rhodes University and Rhodesia.’ I remember that season in the thirds well; our coach was Neil Emslie from whom we learned a hell of a lot. Above all else, he was a thinker and someone who knew how to use positive reinforcement to good effect.
I love watching Wales play rugby, I love their crowds, their singing, their passion. I can only hope our desperate Springboks can prevail against the challenge, concentrate on the ball and take the points.