What is your nation’s rugby DNA?

biltongbek Roar Guru

By biltongbek, biltongbek is a Roar Guru & Live Blogger


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    The Springboks take on Wales at Twickenham. (AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville)

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    We often compare playing styles from various countries; some like the All Blacks and Wallabies want to give the ball air, while South Africa and England are more the ball under the armpit type of runners.

    The environment I grew up in South Africa in the seventies had no gangs, crime, drugs or anything that you would call untoward. It was an environment that was pretty normal.

    I went to seven primary schools in my life, we eventually settled when I went to Standard 7 (grade nine) where I managed to complete my last four years of secondary education at one school.

    I guess most of us grow up in a school environment where bullies reign supreme and run most playgrounds, so I don’t think South Africa in the seventies were much different from any other place, at least not in the environment I grew up in.

    So very early on in life I came to realise when you are the new kid on the block you need to stand your ground when the local school bullies come knocking. It was standard protocol; don’t give an inch and they leave you alone, give an inch and you’ll be giving away yards for the rest of your time there.

    You then have rugby, the sporting code revered by Afrikaner fathers, when your son is born the first thing you do is buy him a rugby ball, no matter what it is made of, a little rubbery one filled with the stuff they make Teddy Bears from, or these ones you get at supermarkets and Garages, they have a thin plastic or latex covering and have a type of sponge in the center.

    When the family visits, or the neighbor comes visiting, even when the uncle that comes to your house to fix the plumbing, all ask the same question when you are a boy: do you play rugby and in what position?

    If you are a wing, they want to know how many tries you scored, and most importantly how many big blokes have you tackled. If you are a forward (like me), it is all about whether you can stand the heat in the kitchen.

    At camp fires and family get-togethers, rugby is the one subject that doesn’t get neglected, yeah sure they talk about work, cars, women etc, but it is the rugby that gets heated, it is a way of life you see, little else carries the same importance.

    So as you grow up you learn one thing pretty early on in life. Show fear is showing weakness, don’t run away, always stand your ground and hopefully that will get you through life and rugby.

    There are times though where showing no fear will still require you put up or shut up, no more so than on a rugby field, it is a contact sport after all.

    So at school I was fortunate enough to walk away without fighting most times, but there were a handful of times when those fights were necessary to establish your pecking order at school.

    The same applied to the rugby field in those days. When I went to high school, my captain who was a year ahead of me told me before a game, “When a bloke hits you, mark him, so we can all take him out.” That is how it worked.

    Many a time I would come off the field with a jersey full of blood (often mine as well) but you walked proudly back to the school bus because you manned up.

    I am not trying to paint a picture of South Africans being uncouth, uneducated ruffians, but the mentality that goes with growing up in the seventies.

    Looking at my son and his first year of 15 a side rugby I don’t think much have changed, the same principles apply, even if discipline and foul play is officiated more strictly these days.

    The point I am trying to make is that each country have their own traditions, culture etc.

    For an Afrikaner things are simpler, man up, respect your elders, respect your wife, love your children, make an honest day’s living and care for your family.

    Discipline your children and give them the opportunities you can, but make sure they are always safe.

    Rugby holds many of those values, respect, honor, honesty, hard work, love etc.

    That is why we associate with rugby, the physical battle, the intimidation, the collisions, all comes naturally to us. It isn’t all to our benefit though, as we tend to run at the defender rather than the gap, we have this inbred mentality we are physically superior and the defender will yield.

    It is there for not incorrect to say we are not the most intelligent players on the pitch. So if you want to taunt us to get retaliation it is likely to happen, only the most disciplined like Juan Smith, John Smit and the like have been able to go through their careers without being called for thuggery.

    Remember Brad Thorn up ending John Smit in front of the referee in 2009? John went for neck surgery and the next season got Thorn back with one of the most perfectly executed driving tackles you’ll see in rugby.

    So we aren’t all brutes who can’t discipline ourselves, we’ll get you, even if it is a year later and as legal as can be.

    You see showing you are tough and being tough isn’t about elbows in the face, fingers in the eye, head butts or any other illegal dangerous transgressions, it is about facing your opponent head on and manning up.

    Everything else is just semantics.

    There is of course another aspect to this mentality, one where it is foolhardy to suggest we cannot do something, don’t tell us we can’t win, because no matter the skills of the opponent, our mentality simply doesn’t allow us to back down.

    So in summary, every rugby playing nation has what you would call their core DNA, it varies obviously, but most likely we are not unique in our mentality.

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    The Crowd Says (16)

    • February 1st 2013 @ 8:08am
      Emric said | February 1st 2013 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      I Liked this read thanks for posting

      • Roar Rookie

        February 1st 2013 @ 8:28am
        Takeshi Kovacs said | February 1st 2013 @ 8:28am | ! Report

        Me too. It’d be interesting to get other peoples perspectives on their nations playing styles/philosophies. Perhaps our convict heritage here in Oz explains our preference for ‘The running game’.

        I have this vision of David Campese sprinting and goose-stepping his way through the streets of Dickensian London with a pilfered loaf of bread tucked under an arm, the Bobbies hotly in pursuit.

        Or David Pockock standing firm amongst a Thames-side street riot as he burrows amongst the bodies for a dropped wallet. Or Quade Cooper leaping a fence with a couple of hot laptops clasped to his chest….. oh, wait.

    • February 1st 2013 @ 8:25am
      Crash Ball said | February 1st 2013 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      Great article BB. My SA mates are exactly as you describe: unbending, unflinching, unafraid, hugely stubborn, loyal to a fault, strictly principaled and well schooled in both life and rugby. I don’t understand the penchant for brandy – but I drink with them anyway.

      • Roar Guru

        February 1st 2013 @ 8:40am
        biltongbek said | February 1st 2013 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        Cheers mate, I am a whiskey man myself. Brandy kills braincells, we often remark about those Afrikaners who can’t handle their Brandy.

        “first you drink yourself funny, then you drink yourself smart, then you drink yourself strong, and finally you get a beating”

    • February 1st 2013 @ 9:44am
      Crash Ball said | February 1st 2013 @ 9:44am | ! Report

      What you’ve captured very eloquently BB is, I believe, the reason that Robbie Deans has so many vocal critics in Oz. Let’s get this straight: RD is a talented, passionate, intelligent rugby man with a stellar pedigree who clearly wants his team to win. There are no “Deans Haters” in my house. However, in recent seasons, he has lost his way. The Wallabies have abandoned the distinct – creative, ambitious, intelligent – style of rugby that has proven both inspiring and successful over many years. They are ignoring their intrinsic DNA and they are losing hearts and minds along the way.

      “Injuries” has been endlessly catch-cry of apologists who blindly defend an obviously gutsy team attempting to play a Northern Hemisphere / South African game plan without NH / Bok cattle or culture. This assertion is clearly incorrect. Deans began to lose the Australian public before the injury toll – when he abandoned the fundamental tenants of Wallaby rugby and their traditional strengths – ball in hand, at pace, in motion, creative running rugby. The grinding, predictable, uninspired style the Australians adopted at the World Cup (and ever since) flew in the face of what had proven immeasurably more successful (and enjoyable to watch) in the period immediately beforehand. His man management and communication are clearly problems. Deans should have moved heaven and earth to keep the greatest openside Australia has every produced for WC2011. How much would the Wallabies have loved one G. Smith contesting the breakdown in that fateful pool match with Ireland rather than the stunningly idiotic decision to select no backup to Pocock and so fling Ben McCalman (WTF?) into the breach.

      Much is made of Quade Cooper’s capitulation at the said same tournament – and indeed he made several mistakes on and off the field that require acknowledgement. But what effect did the selection of a non-ball playing, converted Super winger – with no noticeable offload / step / deception- who is a middleweight crash ball exponent with a ridiculously upright running style and a penchant for ambling directly at towering tight forwards who couldn’t have been happier had he’d been gift wrapped around the latest xBox? Answer: concentrate the defence on Cooper knowing 12 posed no threat and that the dangerous outside backs would never see first (or indeed, any) phase ball. Again, this is no criticism of McCabe – a fearless, honest rugby player with faultless commitment to the cause. But he is not an international 12. An international winger: absolutely. And Deans has done him and the Wallabies a disservice by not selecting him there.

      That the Wallabies win more often than not win is a tribute to their courage and commitment. But what the Australian rugby public demands is that the Wallaby coach plot bold game plans that reflect the strengths of Australian rugby and then select the players to execute them. Win or lose, I’d support that.

      • Roar Guru

        February 1st 2013 @ 12:48pm
        jeznez said | February 1st 2013 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

        Great article Biltong and good post Crashy.

        Completely agree that my current issue with the Wallabies is exactly as you describe and you pinpoint with Smith and McCabe the two areas that make it most glaring.

        It hasn’t helped that the Waratahs under Australian coaches have shifted to a pick and drive game plan with aimless kicking the last few years either.

        The Wallaby mantra of playing a running game, of recognising that our players generally have not been physically as strong as our opponents so focusing on on fitness and ensemble play to expose defences, an emphasis on intelligent play to enable technique and guile to aid us in competing. A clear recognition that the fastest object on the field is the ball and an ability to move it into space while defences are re-setting.

        Support play is key, getting multiple bodies in motion and allowing the ball carrier to make the decision as to who to hit the ball with.

        Eddie Jones started the rot by over programming the team and completely giving up on scrummaging, Connolly didn’t really have long enough in the role, although his persistence with an aged Gregan didn’t help. Now Robbie after making some initial great strides with the team has in the last two years moved his side in a direction that is at odds with how Australians want their team to play.

        With Cheika re-launching the Waratahs this season and hopefully less injuries next year I’m hoping he can help bring Aussie rugby back to its DNA.

        • February 1st 2013 @ 8:50pm
          Bakkies said | February 1st 2013 @ 8:50pm | ! Report

          The current Wallabies team are deficient in the basics of handling, catching and running to play a ball in hand game. If this lot played ball in hand they will struggle to get out of their half. That’s why Jake White got the Brumbies to clear the ball out their own half to focus on the basics first before going wide.

          • February 1st 2013 @ 11:36pm
            Crash Ball said | February 1st 2013 @ 11:36pm | ! Report

            The current Wallaby team has been unable to muster a cohesive offensive strategy from within their opposition’s half let alone their own. But executing a positive game plan doesn’t mean run at all costs, in all situations and at all parts of the field. The false perception consistently perpetuated between “pure” rugby and “running” rugby is that they are mutually exclusive. They are not. Of course, a team that is monstered could have the most exhilarating backline in the world cutting the half time oranges for all the good it would do them. But as Biltong has pointed out, different countries have a tendency to produce players of a certain ilk, with common characteristics and mentality. It stands to reason then that a national coach should acknowledge (and attempt to improve) their team’s weaknesses while enhancing their key strengths. My point is that over the last couple of seasons, RD has failed at both.

            How I’d love to see a hulking Bok-esque forward pack (bolstered by a Wallaby 7) dominate at all the points of collision. Traditionally, that is not our go. The Wallabies are attempting to play this game against sides that are just better at it.

            The 2012 Wallaby forward pack, much like their courageous captain, were workman-like but also singularly bloody-minded and generally delivered a semblance of parity in most games. However, Wallaby sides have survived on not much more than that for years. The biggest deviation from Wallaby rugby has been in the selection and instruction of our backs. And there is plenty enough talent to go round. You could practically throw JOC and The Badger into a Reds backline and have enough ambition to execute a positive, creative attack. What the Wallabies have most recently lacked is a plan, the right cattle and the cast iron swingers to have a go.

            Bakkies, Jake White got the Brumbies to kick the ball out of their own half because, Jake White coached teams kick the ball out of their own half.

            • February 1st 2013 @ 11:55pm
              Bakkies said | February 1st 2013 @ 11:55pm | ! Report

              Crash ball if you had the misfortune of watching the Brumbies in 2011 they tried to play too much Rugby in their own half. Turning it over, running laterally, players running the blind into traffic (or touch), dropping the ball or throwing it in to touch was the mantra. Jake White got them playing basic Rugby until they had the confidence of running it out with accuracy.

              • February 2nd 2013 @ 7:44am
                Crash Ball said | February 2nd 2013 @ 7:44am | ! Report

                I’m a Brumbies fan. The misfortune you describe has been my painful reality for a lot longer than just the 2011 season. Jake White’s strategy for the Ponies in 2012 was bang on and my comment wasn’t a criticism, simply an observation. A JW coached team could have Chrisitan Cullen, Israel Daqq and John Kirwan as the back three and they would still punt as a first optiion (or perhaps Percy Montgomery, BH and JPP).

              • February 2nd 2013 @ 11:04am
                Bakkies said | February 2nd 2013 @ 11:04am | ! Report

                Don’t know about that being a Jake White template regardless of who he was coaching, his Bok regulars weren’t renowned counterattackers. The Brumbies backs were starting to click until Leiliifano’s injury.

              • February 2nd 2013 @ 2:17pm
                Crash Ball said | February 2nd 2013 @ 2:17pm | ! Report

                At the very least, you’d be unkind not to consider Habana world class in this regard.

        • February 1st 2013 @ 11:47pm
          AndyS said | February 1st 2013 @ 11:47pm | ! Report

          Agree Jez, the problems with the Wallabies pre-date Deans significantly. I’d also tend to put much of the responsibility with Jones’ robotic play, being the total antithesis of creative, ball-in-hand play. I would have said that a good bit of the territorial kicking came into being under Connolly though.

          • February 2nd 2013 @ 4:13am
            Bakkies said | February 2nd 2013 @ 4:13am | ! Report

            Jones and Connolly forced players like Larkham against teams such as SA and England to kick the ball down the field rather then to touch. This was to prevent them from setting up 30 metre rolling mauls from the resultant lineout. Larkham got flack for his general play kicking but I say a lot of it was tactics from his coach.

    • Roar Guru

      February 1st 2013 @ 1:08pm
      sheek said | February 1st 2013 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

      I have the greatest respect for South African sport.

      As a 13 year old in 1969 I witnessed the Springboks clean out the Wallabies in all four rugby tests.

      Who are these guys?

      As a 14 year old in 1970 I witnessed South Africa clean out Australia in all four cricket tests.

      Who are these guys?

      As a 15 year old in 1971 I witnessed the Springboks clean out the Wallabies in all three rugby tests.

      Who are these guys?

      Between 1969-71 I had seen my beloved Australia beaten 11 times out of 11 meets in two separate sports.

      Who are these guys?

      Back to the summer of 1970/71 & Barry Richards came to play Sheffield Shield for South Australia. He averaged over 100 with the bat & hit centuries against every opponent, including a career highest 356 against WA & 224 & 146 in separate matches against the English tourists.

      Who is this guy?

      As an impressionable teenager I thought South African sportsmen were supermen. But then it was taken away from me, any opportunity for atonement removed.

      I would be in my 30s when I next saw Australia play South Africa in sport. In 1992 (21 years later), we were still losing to South Africa when we lost a pool game against them in the cricket world cup. But the Wallabies did manage to beat the Springboks later that year. Phew!

      Naturally, as a teenager & through my 20s to early 30s throughout the 1970s & 80s I devoured everything I could about South African sport, especially cricket & rugby, from afar.

      I followed every rebel tour to South Africa in cricket. I followed the All Blacks series of both 1976 & 1981, plus the Cavaliers tour of 1986. I followed the Lions in 1980 & the World XV in 1989. I kept track of whoever was the latest champions in South African cricket or rugby.

      In 1985-87, Graeme Pollock averaged a neat 70 with the bat in five rebel tests against the Australians. And he was 41 years old going through to 43. Who is this guy?

      In circa 1985, the best South African XI would still have beaten most cricket nations: Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham, Peter Kirsten, Graeme Pollock, Ken McEwan, Clive Rice (c), Alan Kourie, Ray Jennings (k), Steve Jefferies, Garth le Roux, Hugh Page.

      Keeping in mind also Kepler Wessels & Allan Lamb were playing respectively for Australia & England.

      And what about the Boks backline circa 1985? Johan Heunis, Ray Mordt, Danie Gerber, Michael du Plessis, Carel du Plessis, Naas Botha, Divan Serfontein.

      I would suggest that’s a backline of such quality & skill to match any that might have been put on the field by the Springboks in over 100 years of rugby tests.

      I admire the physical toughness of Boks & Proteas players. Sometimes I think your physical toughness is superior to ours. Aussies used to be tough, especially the thousands upon thousands who lived off the land. Those born on the land proved to be outstanding soldiers & fighters in two world wars.

      But as we’ve become increasingly urban bound, we’ve become physically softer. And mentally as well, although that is a fault I would also put to the South African psyche – physically tough, but not always as mentally tough, or more precisely, smart.

    • February 1st 2013 @ 7:28pm
      DB said | February 1st 2013 @ 7:28pm | ! Report

      Sheet – agree with that last paragraph! Bit too young for the preceding paras but I always thought the boks play very much “dumb rugby”. Not dumb people just lacking in any deception whatsoever, I have often wondered why but always come to the realization that it matters not, we play the opposite to them by necessity frankly and it made watching the wallabies always interesting! My fear has always been that one day the boks would wake up to how the AB’s and in the past the wallabies attack, that is, plenty of bodies in motion and plenty of deception and ALWAYS running at the hole not the man. Given their production line of gargantuan forwards they would be unstoppable if their backs adopted such an attacking ‘shape’ for lack of a better word and attacked as an ensemble with the forwards, much like the AB’s. watching the cheetahs this year it struck me that with Johan goosen they look to have a 10 who can provide such a ‘shape’ and that really worries me!! What makes it worse is the regression of the wallabies to a limited game, traditionally displayed by the boks!!! Unless something changes quickly at wallabies HQ in relation to how we play we could really slip down the totem pole fast I fear!!

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