Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the final installment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby.
Hats off to a special All Blacks side that has shown composure and class throughout the Championship, even though they were not even always playing their best rugby. It's a scary thought. They showed immense improvement in their line-out, which was their one potential Achilles heel.
They now actually possess an arsenal of different types of locks which they can deploy for different types of games - a strategy they have also deployed wisely with their front row, back row and even centre combinations. I did not think that an international team would be able to become so comfortably dominant in the modern era with all the analysis and the continued professional develop of players, most notably at club and provincial level.
Before we point fingers at the coaches who did not perform well in the tournament, it needs to be said that international coaching is a completely different ball game from the challenges at provincial and club level. Fundamental player development starts years before a player signs his first professional contract. General catch and pass skills, the ability to run into space and evasion skills are competencies that are developed at school and at agegroup level.
Steve Hansen can take little credit for the phenomenal captaincy abilities of Richie McCaw or the decision making of Dan Carter at this stage of their careers. He can however be credited for developing a very cohesive and disciplined pack of forwards with an incredible skill set. It is also clear that the team is responding as individuals and a unit to his and his management's guidance at half time - they played incredibly well in the second halve of most of their games. All signs of intelligent management and responsive and coachable players.
In the same vein Robbie Deans should not have to take responsibility for the technical issues in his front row, which is a systemic problem in the Australian game which has just never received enough attention at schoolboy and academy level. Heyneke Meyer is in the same boat with regards to general skill levels of backline players in South Africa. International coaches manage assets that have been developed at the lower levels. It is not their job to coach core skills. There is no time in the case of South Africa to develop the ability to see space or to optimise their physical conditioning in the eight weeks available to a management team.
As valiantly as Argentina gave account of themselves, their management is further removed from their players for the vast majority of the year and depends on their personal development at the European clubs they represent. Sadly their biggest strength was the very thing that derailed their plans in most games. Their enthusiasm and aggression, especially in defence made them incredibly hard to play against, but in the process the thin line between a spirited performance and ill-discipline was crossed too many times and in the process they eased the pressure on their opponents in crucial moments.
The professional game and the detailed analysis that underpins the development and success of modern team sports are revealing some very interesting statistics that the average supporter is struggling to process and understand. The game is even leaving a lot of coaches and gameplan theories in tatters at the moment.
The game of rugby has evolved at such a rapid pace over the last number of years that I believe it has left behind a significant part of the traditional supporter base in a no-man's-land of indifference and ignorance. Major contributors to this state of affairs are the incessant ploy of the IRB and national unions to continue adding more games to the rugby calendar to balance their books. Supporter fatigue has developed and the decline in viewing numbers in certain geographies, but most importantly, bums on seats, are well documented.
The other major catalyst for the incredible pace at which the game has evolved is the rule changes. Although the majority of the changes are in fact only clarifications of the interpretation of the laws, I find it has left most lifelong rugby enthusiast frustrated and irritated by the fact that they cannot understand half the calls the referees are making in the game - and neither do they understand the fact that the basic rules are sometimes completely ignored (mainly due to an overload of areas to focus on).
If you would conduct a survey and only include the most die-hard fans, it would be quite an eye-opener how far their perceptions are removed from the hard facts. If you would ask followers of the Championship which team kicked the most possession, it would be a unanimous vote for South Africa. The truth is they actually kicked the fewest number of kicks in the competition. The same would be true around an area like the scrum where Argentina is very highly rated, but in actual fact performed indifferently and was penalised and under pressure in numerous games - and even got scrummed off their own ball against the wallabies in the second halve.
The problem is the general inertia or stickiness of perceptions. It is true that it is more difficult to shake off negative perceptions, but good perceptions can be sticky as well.
The Championship has shown to me that brains will, more than ever, continue to trump brawn. Even if something is a strength in the make-up of your team, it does not mean you need to play to that strength all the time - the Springbok drive and long penalty attempts are a good examples of wasted possession. Ensuring you can play the complete game and focussing on controlling the game through the strength of your defence and the efficiency of your line-out - where the All Blacks have improved immensely over the last five years - you can play any style on attack and you will be able to adapt to the weather, opposition - even during a game.
The All Blacks approach each game differently and my conclusion is that one style will not secure medium and long term success of any team at the top end of the game moving forward - because the opposition will figure you out. But for the international managers to have options with regards to style and game plans, he needs to be supported by school coaches, academies and provincial coaches who are truly committed (and who has the ability) to coach the core skills of the game in a way that will develop players that can enjoy and execute the complete game. The health of the game and coaching at grass roots levels will always feed through to the top end of the game.
Until next year, 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. He won four Currie Cups with Western Province and earned 43 Super 12 caps with the Stormers.
In 2003 Visagie moved to London to join Saracens for whom he played in 121 games and was voted in the Premiership Team of the Season for three consecutive years.