It’s well known that Super rugby success, or failure for that matter, doesn’t translate to either result in the international arena. However, after nine rounds there isn’t a whole lot of optimism drifting through South African rugby circles.
Sure, the Stormers are currently in the top four and the Sharks are well placed for a late charge. However, there are some very worrying signs appearing that must be questioned and hopefully answered.
Conservatism and Possession:
Historically not the most adventurous, South African sides have tended to rely on a fusion of belligerent defence, forward set piece dominance and tactical kicking.
This is the current game plan of the leading South African conference sides the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls in that order of execution. The Bulls being the largest practitioners but poorest executors at this juncture.
There is nothing overtly wrong with this game plan providing your execution is spot on and the opposition can be pressured into making mistakes you can capitalise on.
Therein lies the issue, when other more possession orientated sides keep the ball and make a mistake it’s often in the wrong part of the field to capitalise on. So usually what happens is the SA side will then kick the ball back to that side, who will then run it back to repeat the cycle.
This is defensively very taxing and provides limited opportunity which when presented have to be capitalised on. So where to from here?
It is an interesting fact that the most adventurous sides are the cellar dwellers the Lions and Cheetahs. Their problem is the complete opposite, having a lack of defensive and set piece structure. It would almost seem that the SA sides are incapable of marrying the two approaches. Almost.
I honestly thought the Sharks and to a lesser extend the Stormers were breaking the mould but both teams have since reverted to type perhaps in a bid to emulate last years winning Bulls blueprint.
Pieter de Villiers:
Not the most popular man unless you are searching for a humorous sound byte. The head coach has managed to avoid the usual issues surrounding his role and come up with new conspiracies and divisiveness all by himself.
Despite the odd contextual issue this man does not inspire confidence and his stubbornness could be the greatest stumbling block to the Springboks defending their title.
Long has been the fascination in big tall heavy ball carrying loosies. As such we tend to develop, or should I say promote, very few real to the ball players. The exception is Brussouw but we cant have our hopes pinned on a single player.
Players like Francois Louw, Botes and Stegmann need to become more accurate in their play. It’s not just down to the “fetchers” but an overall systemic failure in the approach to the breakdown.
The SA sides and the Boks have stopped trying to force turnovers through the ruck. Instead, committing fewer numbers to put out more runners or more defenders in the line ala circa ‘10. This has led them to be quite exposed to the aggressive counter rucking employed by several Kiwi sides and the Reds who flood this area.
Although there is a certain amount of nous in this with the first through the gate pushing up the advantage line for the second to then wheel in from the side. This sideways shove is negating the defence pretty easily and opening up the ruck for turnover. Legal or not we have to stop approaching the ruck like it was 2010 all over again.
There aren’t many opportunities to get hold of the ball but given how many rucks are afforded when playing a possession based team this is definitely one of them.
For a long time now the core of the Bok squad in both personnel and gameplay. Recent humiliations to the premier sides of the other conferences the Reds and Crusaders have thrown several veteran Bok’s form into question and raised huge concerns over the game plan to be employed by the Boks.
After all its easier for players to play what they know and so having the Boks mirror the Bulls has been pretty logical. Now that the Bulls cant even play their own game how are those players going to fare in the national team?
They say a world cup winning squad should have around 5-6 of the best players in the world in their position. It’s debatable that the Boks have just one at the moment in Bismarck du Plessis.
Which brings us onto the key players within the Bok squad. Those that should be in a rich vein of form but aren’t and in some cases should be out of the pecking order completely. Can Smit be carried? Will we ever see Spies ’09 again? What happened to Habana? Is the world cup campaign one too far for Matfield and Botha?
Other concerns hinge around injuries. Will Bekker and Brussouw get back to full fitness? Will Juan Smith be able to make it at all?
The biggest concern however has got to be Fourie du Preez. Since having shoulder surgery he has been a shadow of himself. Admittedly his forwards have been giving him terrible ball but he should be a player that grabs a game by the scruff of the neck.
In the coming months some tough decisions will need to be made on some of these core players and in some cases I hope the decision comes from themselves.
Might is right and if it isn’t you are wrong – and so we play on. For a team to beat the Boks they just need to front up to our physicality or play around it. Either way we have no answers. There is no Plan B, only Plan A. We need adaptable variation.
There are a few certain truths and a whole lot of ifs but all is not lost though. Even employing our current style and dragging the opposition into an arm wrestle on our terms will most likely result in a win. It may also do the game no favours but there is an element of truth to PdV’s statement about conservatism winning world cups.
It’s less risk to be defensive than attacking and providing the execution is spot on and we play inside the other teams half we can grind most down. The players also have the golden currency of experience and know what it takes to win a world cup. It’s just a question if the class of ’07 have the legs to do it again in ’11.
Now on to the ifs. If the Sharks can get back playing the game where they left off at the CC final. If the Stormers backline starts to score tries. These two teams could then form a formidable core for the Boks with existing combinations. A side that can both play tactically and possession orientated with defensive steel. If some of the current crop can re-discover their form even better.
If PdV can actually coach, do what he says he will and make the hard decisions around the game plan and players. Then we could see Alberts, Beast, Bekker, Aplon, Basson, Lambie, Fourie, Brussouw, Bismarck and perhaps Vermuelen carrying the team through.
The biggest hurdle in the end could be the time to adapt and this is why we need the Super rugby sides to show the way. It’s a long shot but I certainly wouldn’t be writing the Boks off yet.