Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the sixth edition of a series of columns.
Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the sixth installment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby.
The late Danie Craven was asked once which position is the most important in a rugby team. His answer was that his tighthead prop is always the first player on the team sheet. He was then asked which position is the second most important to which he answered: the reserve tighthead prop.
Even as a man who played the position for more than a quarter of a century and who finds great satisfaction in analysing the intricacies of the battle between two packs of eight angry men, I have to admit that it is not the case anymore. The sad thing is that between the rule makers and the pressure from rugby illiterate television audiences that would prefer to not even see a scrum or the setup of a scrum, the importance of the set piece has been eroded over the last decade to the point where it is almost negligible compared to other aspects of the game. Part of the problem is that at the moment there is not a single recognised commentator who has played in the front row and who can give any credible explanation or insight into what is happening in the darkest of battles in any professional sport in the world. If people don't understand, they cannot appreciate the battle.
We can probably sit and debate this all day long, but my position is that the scrum is a very unique aspect of rugby that is fundamental to making it a game for all body shapes. It is a foundational part of the central equation that every coach needs to deal with to calculate the balance of speed and power in the composition of a team. The current situation is that a coach only needs to ensure that his pack can stand its ground, because it will only come back to bite you if you are seriously exposed. If every coach at every age level selected according to this philosophy, you are just creating a position for overweight loose forwards. Robbie Deans is in exactly this position this week – his hand has been forced to select four locks, with Sitaleki Timani being moved to the side of the scrum for extra security at scrum time. They will surely pay for this over the course of the game in terms of speed to the break down.
To be honest I have reached my wits end with the Australian front row and their survival tactics. They have perfected the front row jack knife. How a referee cannot pick up on the most fundamental scrum law – that you have to scrum with your shoulders above your hips – frustrates me endlessly. In the end they nullify the opposition's power, because they need to scrum upwards to just be able to stay on their feet. But there is justice in this world – sometimes – and they got seriously caught out this weekend with their sneaky plan to do multiple tactical front row substitutions and you have to give referee Roland credit that he picked up they exceeded their maximum substitutions.
A more important fact which this past weekend's games underlined was that the most important position on the field is the fly-half – and possibly your second most important position is your scrum-half. The return of Dan Carter was immense in unlocking the flow and potential of the All Black attack. Even though the All Blacks were stunned early on by the Argentinean attack, Carter took control of the game and annihilated the most passionate rugby team on the face of the planet at the moment, with precision and calm. He has lost none of his speed after his groin injury and it is clear that even the vastly experienced and immensely talented players around him thrive on playing with the most complete fly-half the world has seen. I believe the 2012 All Black team is a better team than the 2011 version and the main catalyst for the next level they have reached is Aaron Smith.
In the other game the arrival of the talented 20-year-old Johan Goosen transformed the Springbok attack, as many predicted. He is the real deal. The enormity of the occasion had the potential to destroy the confidence of a very talented young player, as was the case with Gaffie du Toit, but the composure he showed was way beyond his years. It is early days, but if ever South Africa had the player to challenge the supremacy of Dan Carter, the Goose is probably the man to do it. I do, however, need to mention, that the Wallabies made a massive error with their selection at fly-half and it was part of a series of management decisions that gifted the game to the Springboks in many ways.
You have to give credit to Ruan Pienaar (in the 2nd most important position) for the way he protected his Grey College junior. Pienaar seems to thrive when given more control and responsibility over the game – his performances for Ulster are testament to the fact. On the other, hand Australia has been found wanting since the injury of Will Genia who basically managed the team. (Quade Cooper absence didn't help either).
It is going to be a really special Test match in Soweto on Saturday, but I am very wary of South Africa's ability to stay on top of the game in the last quarter of the match. Even when the Wallabies were one man down in the last 10 minutes, the Springbok defence look lethargic and slow to get into position. It will cost them dearly against the All Blacks. A further problem in predicting the outcome of Saturday's game is that the All Blacks are chasing their 16th consecutive Test match victory and although they may deny that it is not on their radar to become the greatest rugby team of all time, I am sure Richie McCaw will move heaven and earth to achieve this accolade before taking time out for his sabbatical.
I would prefer more aggressive and agile players on the Springbok bench, like Craig Burden, who will play to the ball in the last 20 minutes of the game to slow it down. He would also be able to cover for the heavyweights who, out of necessity, have to stay on the field for the full 80 minutes. The All Blacks are favourites, because they have shown they can play the full 80 minutes and have the ability to even shift gears in the dying moments of the game. But one thing is for sure, the Springboks have lifted their heads and have confidence in their young general at fly-half.
The Aussies are playing without their regular generals and their pack looks unbalanced. At the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito this weekend we may just see the Pumas take a well-deserved scalp on home soil, which have so cruelly evaded them in the last number of games. But they will have to look after their possession and not kick away freebies to a hungry Wallaby back three.
Until next week, cheers!
Follow Cobus on Twitter: @Drieman3
Visagie earned 29 caps for his country and was the cornerstone of the Springbok team that reached the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. He earned the nickname “Drieman”, or three man, because he played number 3 and scrummed like three men.