Planet Rugby

'Template rugby' is poison for SA

09th July 2014 11:57

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WP rolling maul v pumas

Oh joy...another maul

Winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup was a momentous occasion for Springboks but it has done little for the development of the way rugby is played in South Africa.

I believe that the so-called 'Jake White template' has been detrimental to South African rugby on a number of levels.

Let me start by saying that I can't fault White's tactics in 2007. Given the weapons at his disposal, the approach he adopted was spot on. The efficacy of this approach (when correctly executed) is not in question. My aim here is rather point to the consequences of the mindset that has become enrooted in SA rugby because of it's (limited) success.

What concerns me is that the territorially-based and defence-orientated approach employed back then has been widely adopted in the Republic and in many quarters is still held up as a blueprint for future success.

From a coaching perspective, it's not difficult to see why this methodology is popular. Giant men imposing themselves with hard, straight running and big hits have always been the hallmarks of the South African style.

The combination of a dominant line-out, an accurate box-kicking scrum-half, reliable goal-kickers that could find the target from long range and a rock-solid defence that pressurised the opposition into mistakes made for a gameplan that was always going to be hard to stop. It still is.

For some time now, South African teams at both national and Super Rugby level have been trying to rekindle the glory years of domination between 2007 and 2010 when Heyneke Meyer's Bulls - playing a brand of rugby not wholly dissimilar to White's Boks - and John Smit's national team of 2009 were also winning silverware.

Yet, in many ways, SA has been going backwards ever since. Sharks fans will look at the Super Rugby table and tell me I'm crazy, but anyone who has watched South African derbies from a neutral perspective in recent years - and the last two weekends of Super Rugby are prime examples - will tell you that there is either a prevalent rugby mentality that suffocates positive endeavour or there is a serious lack of skills.

I would say it's a little bit of both, and they feed each other, in a vicious circle. The less a gameplan requires handling skills, the less those skills are developed. And as skill levels drop, so playing 'heads-up' rugby becomes less of an option. Coaches at schools imitate teams at the top. Round and round we go in a downward spiral.

At the centre of the circle you'll find South Africa's obsession with beating the All Blacks and winning the World Cup. Beyond those two things, as far as rugby is concerned, not much else really matters.

When 2007 is held up as an example of a winning strategy, it is often conveniently forgotten that success came without having to face New Zealand (thanks, France). The 2007 hangover was further ingrained in 2009 when Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu were found wanting under the high ball in the Tri-Nations.

Let me pause for a minute to note that, although the process has been slow, Meyer is making a genuine effort to bring a more balanced, more attractive style to the national set up, but the playing resources at his disposal limit the potential for progress. Without Willie le Roux, the Bok attack would be pretty blunt.

There is a widespread belief - championed in the mainstream media - that since it's impossible to beat the Kiwis at their own game, South African teams should "play to their strengths". To that end, the Sharks' brave 14-man win in Christchurch earlier this year was hailed by prominent writers as evidence of how to beat New Zealand's best (ignoring, of course, how poor the Crusaders' execution was that day).

I don't want to delve any deeper into the merits and limitations of the White-type gameplan because its an argument that could go on for days. As mentioned, the long-term consequences of this approach are my concern.

Peter de Villiers was labelled a lunatic when he suggested that the South African teams needed to change the way they play. I don't think PDV was a particularly good coach and his press conference antics ensured he left the Bok job with very little credibility, but he was correct when he said - right at the start of his tenure - that South African players needed to learn to play what was if front of them, to make decisions beyond a very narrowly-defined, predetermined script.

It was naive of P-Divvy to believe he could change the way the Springboks played overnight. In the end, he had rather little influence on the style of his team as they largely reverted back what they were doing before. And many of the local franchises, provinces, clubs and schools continued to followed suit. It was a fork in the road for the game in South Africa. The wrong path was chosen.

Crux of the strategy used by most South African teams is to cash in on an opponents' mistakes and to only 'have a crack' once in the opposition 22. Beyond the obvious flaw of coming unstuck when teams doesn't succumb to your pressure, it's an approach that offers very little room for an attacking mindset where opportunities are created. The game is planned to a template. Kick from here, run from here, maul from here, etc, etc.

The result is we have a generation of players who are near-incapable of thinking on their feet. And those who can, are seldom allowed to. The Stormers have managed to prove PDV's point perfectly. I could only shake my head in disbelief earlier this year as I sat listening to Duane Vermeulen explain how his team were still kicking for territory when they had a four-man overlap because they had been taught, for years, that "you don't play rugby in your own half."

To his credit, former White assistant coach Allister Coetzee has seen the light and realised that an approach that yielded exactly one try-bonus point in the previous two years was a recipe for frustrating fans, not winning trophies, and has admitted that a change of culture is required. Unfortunately, old habits die hard and I struggle to see how that culture will evolve sufficiently if the figurehead that instilled it is still at the helm.

John Smit developed a habit of batting away criticism of his Bok team's style by saying they weren't playing 'boring rugby' but 'winning rugby.' Exactly how much was won is a debate for another day, but the off-field consequences of failing to entertain the paying public are very real.

I chatted to a colleague from the north of England (i.e. a guy who has seen his fair share of 'slow' rugby) and his reaction to the Stormers v Sharks game at Kings Park at the end of May was "I don't understand how anyone could possible want to pay to see that."

It's little wonder viewer numbers are on the decline, especially in Australia. Do we need to seek new markets in places like Singapore, or is a better product for the local audience required?

Super Rugby is designed to reward positive endeavour via the bonus-point system. At the time of writing, SA teams had produced 10 try bonus points in 2014 compared to 25 in the Kiwi Conference and 19 in Australia. Only the Bulls and the lowly Lions have scored fewer tries than White's Sharks have this year.

It's obviously too simply to only blame a certain type of gameplan for the dearth of skills. The crisis in South Africa's education system where male teachers, and by extension rugby coaches, are becoming increasingly rare severely hampers the development of talented players at grassroots level.

When I spoke to Meyer about the issue in the early days of his Bok tenure, he was also quick to highlight the nonexistence of Rugby League in South Africa. Unlike Down Under, kids in South Africa do not have the same exposure to the 'culture of offloading' in their formative years.

But that does not mean South Africa lacks raw talent.

Jacques Potgieter is a perfect example of a wasted talent. The former Bulls flank has been a revelation for the Waratahs, where instead of simply seeking contact to set a target, he looks to run into space. Wynand Olivier, once a favourite object of derision for fans, is relishing life in Montpellier, where he, François Trinh-Duc and Anthony Tuitavake are tearing up midfields across France.

The clean break stats for Super Rugby this year paint a dire picture, with three South African teams at the bottom the charts. Not a single SA side is to be found in the top six of the offload numbers.

Imagine if Gio Aplon was given a decent platform to use his skill. How good would Francois Hougaard be if he could play for the Hurricanes? Is Frans Steyn's true potential ever going to be realised? What will happen to Handré Pollard? Will his creative instincts be eroded in Pretoria in the fashion that Jan Serfontein is slowing being turned into another one-dimensional Bulls 12?

South Africa is blessed with gene pool that produces plenty of massive men. But an approach to rugby based purely on physicality is a recipe to fall short of the target of world domination. Who would you rather have in your side? A 100kg Brad Barritt or a 85kg Matt Giteau?

South Africa has significantly larger player numbers and greater financial resources than New Zealand. In the professional era, there should be no reason why the SA teams should continue to play second fiddle to their old rivals.

By no means am I suggesting that Meyer suddenly revolutionise the way the Boks play as an example to the country - that would be suicide. But if South African teams are ever going to become the dominant force in world rugby, coaches in the Republic, at every level, need to stop asking themselves 'how are we going to beat the All Blacks' or 'how are we going to win this weekend'.

Instead, they must start asking 'how are we going to play better rugby.'

by Ross Hastie

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