The Boks have to play more rugby, less thugby

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SpringboksBakkies Botha has been correctly booted out of rugby until September for his idiotic head-butt on Jimmy Cowan early on in the New Zealand 32 – South Africa 12 Test at Eden Park. It will be interesting to see if the Springbok selectors continue with Botha for their campaign in RWC 2011.

If they do it means that they are determined to win important matches through thugby rather than by playing rugby.

The Springboks coach Peter de Villiers took great offence to a comment by his NZ counterpart Graham Henry to the effect that the Springboks are a hard team to play because ‘they don’t play much rugby.’ By that Henry meant that the since 2007 the Springboks have been the dominant team in world rugby by playing an essentially kicking rather than running game.

An expert thinker on the game explained the Springboks game to me this way: “Crucial to the Springboks’ success is bullying opponents into submission and winning the collisions. They kick their penalties into the corner (when not converting them into points). They dominant early on, physically and psychologically. They make their opponents play catch-up rugby.”

This analysis accentuates Henry’s point that by incessant kicking of high balls, the Springboks make the other side play ball-in-hand rugby. Under the old ruck laws the Springboks last year turned these high balls into penalties by tackling their opponents, and by not allowing them to play the ball, they forced penalties.

Under the new interpretations of the tackled ball, the tacklers are required to allow the tackled player to play the ball.

This meant that a side like the All Blacks that took risks of adverse penalties last year in running the ball were able to confidently run the ball from inside their own 22 at Eden Park. They literally ran the Springboks off their feet by refusing to kick for touch. The Springboks had only 9 throws in the entire Test, and lost two of them.

Some of the big Springboks forwards, when the biff of Botha didn’t work in softening the All Blacks, gave up the struggle to contain the black wave surging relentlessly at them. If they were cricketers you’d call them flat wicket bullies.

This brings us back to Botha.

Last year I incurred the wrath of what seemed like hundreds of South Africans when I labelled Botha a ‘serial thug.’ The Springboks themselves went to bat for him when he was (correctly) put out for a couple of months for an illegal charge into a maul that broke the arm of a British and Irish Lions forward.

He’s been sin-binned and put out of rugby in his career for biting, eye-gouging, striking, illegal charging, stomping and now head-butting.

There will be South Africans who will argue that he has been hard done by. But his record speaks for itself.

He is a serial thug.

Yes, Jimmy Cowan held him back by the jersey. But Botha broke free and tackled him as he was trying to pass. And then he head-butted him from behind, a cowardly and despicable action intended to damage the All Blacks half back.

Which it did. Cowan played poorly after that incident in the opening seconds of the match. He is going to see a doctor today to see if there is further damage.

Not long after Botha left the field towards the end of the Test, the Springboks brought on their ‘serial thug, number 2,’ Butch James.

And sure enough within seconds James had tried to rile Brad Thorn by throwing him illegally out of the way. He then planting his elbow across the throat of Corry Jane in an attempt to choke him while giving him a facial massage, with a hint of an eye-gouge, for good (really bad) measure.

James like Botha should not be selected for any Springboks side. He brings shame to the jersey and the tradition of the Springboks as a great side since 1896.

The fact that these two players get selected suggests to me that de Villiers (or whoever selects and coaches the Springboks) is more interested in getting results through thugby rather than rugby.

The point is that when the Springboks play rugby they are a formidable side capable of beating any other side in world rugby. On Saturday night they badly missed Fourie du Preez, the best player in the world and a silent assassin.

The All Blacks, too, seemed to have worked out the Springboks saucer defence which calls for the outside centre and wingers to rush forward looking for interceptions. The All Blacks smashed their forwards and backs into the soft centre of the curved defensive line. They invariably got over the advantage line while the Springboks, with their big forwards struggling for breathe, struggled to do this on the rare occasions when they did run the ball.

To be honest I thought the referee, Irishman Alan Lewis, was unduly tolerant of the Springboks offences. He did sin-bin Botha. This was after the big television screen had shown the Botha head-butt (which Lewis missed) a number of times.

He merely warned James, for instance, while he penalised Jane for tapping a ball a metre or so away when it was already over the touch-line.

Lewis was at Richie McCaw all day about staying bound to the scrum while he allowed Shalk Burger to get away well before the scrum was finished. He penalised the All Blacks for not releasing the ball in a tackle a couple of times while allowing the Springboks to hang on.

He gave a penalty against McCaw for breaking from the scrum (and the first points of the Test) when Ricky Januarie broke away from the scrum before the ball was out. This trick that has been deemed to be illegal for many years.

In a period of 5 minutes before half time and 15 minutes after half time, Lewis penalised the All Blacks seven times. This kept the Springboks in the match as Morne Steyn booted over three penalties.

Although they were beaten in every other statistic, the Springboks won the penalty count 12 – 5. I find this statistic amazing given that the Botha technique of flopping over rucks to seal off Springboks ball was exhibited throughout the match, and that the Springboks and not the All Blacks, were under pressure throughout the match.

It was significant of the Springboks’ kicking mentality, though, that even when the score line was 27 – 9 they went for goal (successfully) rather than go for a try from a 5m lineout. P

erhaps they did not trust their maul. The one maul they did try was smashed by the All Blacks.

Where do the Springboks go from here?

They should try to play a more expansive and challenging game (to the opposition’s defensive line) than their kicking and one-up barging game. Jean de Villers needs to come back into the centres. They need someone like Guido Aplin on the wing or at full-back to give some creativity to the attacks.

They need also to get some, or at least one, smaller forward like Heinrick Brustow who is currently injured into the pack for mobility around the field.

And they need a little more ticker from players like Pierre Spies who looked at times as if he dreaded running the ball because he was going to get monstered.

But most of all they need to change their mentality. They have to believe that they can win playing rugby.

A week is a long time in politics – and rugby.

Last week even New Zealanders had conceded their side had no chance of beating the Springboks. All the money in New Zealand was on the Springboks. Now, after a Test where the Springboks I thought were lazy, mentally and physically, the money will go on a New Zealand victory.

But they should not take a victory for granted. The Springboks did this at Auckland and have paid the price.

What is certain, though, is that after two tough Tests in New Zealand, the Springboks should be ripe for the picking at Brisbane, a ground like Eden Park where the Springboks rarely win.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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