Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

22nd July 2014 06:30


Jake White coaching Sharks SR 2014

Sharks' confidence in what they do is different to other SA sides

Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of comeback victories, nail-biters and one-sided thrashings. This week we will mostly be piling up the points on template rugby, Super 15 franchises, touring decisions and a couple of other talking points...

A couple of weeks ago, Planet Rugby Editor Ross Hastie penned an excellent column on South African rugby, pointing out that South African rugby was still lagging behind when it came to skills, derring-do and excitement, that however good the South African Super Rugby teams might be, the limitations of the national rugby culture was holding them back.

The statistical evidence was hard to ignore, as was the point made about talents who have left South African rugby culture and thrived elsewhere. Anybody who watched the dire battering display of kicking and aggression that was the Stormers v Sharks a fortnight ago would have also been left in no doubt that here was a bunch of talent being horribly wasted.

Yet there was one point missing, one which the Sharks proved on Saturday and which a select group of coaches are able to prove again and again: the 'limited' game-plan works if players do know why and how they are doing what they do, and what they are told to do.

What sets the Sharks aside from other South African teams is that each part of their game-plan, meticulously arranged and rigidly imposed, is backed up by a group of players confident in their reasons for kicking in a certain situation, defending in a certain way, running forward lines at a particular angle. It's what sets Jake White apart from his local peers, and what made him a success in Canberra - where Stephen Larkham, another of the game's great thinkers, has maintained that culture.

The accusation that South African teams plan themselves to a standstill is not fundamentally true. Graham Henry's All Blacks had pre-planned defensive positions for the first ruck on defence as well as attacking moves. New Zealand teams don't kick significantly less than South African teams on average.

But watching that Stormers-Sharks game - and indeed other Stormers games this season - and reflecting on the Duane Vermeulen comments earlier in the season about the poor culture and the need to change and make better decisions, it was very apparent that while Alistair Coetzee was perhaps equally as adroit a game-planner as his peers, he was not one who could empower his players with the understanding of the whys and hows, or would not be one who would seek reasons flowing the other way for deviations from the plan.

This is, ultimately, what has carried the Sharks through this season, and it is absolutely the part of New Zealand culture that sets their sides apart: the understanding of what the team is going to do when and why. Once you know why, you are automatically empowered to scan the opposition more efficiently and make more effective game-time decisions.

This is what seems so absent from three of the other four franchises - I believe the Lions performed extremely well this season given their limitations. Do the Cheetahs know why their 'move it around' game is so imbalanced or do the players just act on what they are told to do?

Duane Vermeulen lamented the dictatorial nature of the game-plan in the Cape: are the Stormers being told why they are doing what they do? It doesn't look like it in either case. The same applies to the Bulls, who appear to try and embody a culture without knowing why that culture became prevalent - thus it is no coincidence that rugby brains such as Victor Matfield have such an impact in their later years.

The effects of this dictatorial culture are felt further down the food chain too, where coaches attempt to buy into the South African style but through use of command and repression rather than discussion and reason.

Template rugby is indeed throttling SA's progress at franchise level and below. But it might not be the game-plan itself, rather the reasoning behind it and the communication of that reasoning. That is the culture change that is needed.

The decision of where the next Super Rugby franchise is to be located is going to be a fascinating one. Eddie Jones was right to say that Japan is the ideal choice in terms of rugby culture and game development, but equally right to identify that there were 'other economic factors' likely to be at play.

There is a very tiny history of rugby in Singapore. Among other things, the nation-state holds the record for the biggest-ever Test defeat: 164-13 to Hong Kong in 1994 in a World Cup qualifier.

While much of the pride of the union surrounds the achievements of locally-bred players during the amateur days, the current squad is limited to one-third expatriates, having been at almost two thirds in 2009.

Critically, the issue of expatriates dominating the local scene has caused much recent bitterness - and as Jones also rightfully pointed out, 'just plonking a team of Pacific Islanders' there is likely to be a solution, but it is debatable how popular it would be among the local rugby public.

Yet Singapore does offer more to the game in terms of potential revenue - it is a major global hub for all sorts of things and many rugby folk are either based there or have business interests there, while there is little need to remind the casual reader of the appetite for sports among the wealthy betting public.

Whether that public is desirable or not is a moot point. The infrastructure is also there - not least the splendid stadium and sports complex, of which you feel the acquisition of a rugby team might be a key element of the financing strategy. And now it has Tana Umaga.

It's going to be an interesting decision - go with existing rugby growth or go with a completely new market and attempt to win it over. And I cannot for the life of me decide which I prefer. But one suggestion I could make: give them both a team and get rid of the Kings.

Hip hip hooray for the All Blacks going to both Chicago and Samoa over the next couple of years. If that game can be managed well enough to guarantee a strongest-possible Samoan side, who knows what gates that might open up for tours in the Pacific Islands by European teams in the future - and not just in B&I Lions years either? Fantastic news.

Finally, in a week when referees in South Africa's Eastern Cape downed whistles at the escalating levels of abuse, rugby's reputation was tarnished by the doping figures released by the World Anti-Doping Agency and a group of three French international were set upon by youths with machetes, we would do well to sit back and reflect on the Super Rugby weekend just past. A better brace of quarter-finals I have not seen in years.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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