Sunday 15:00, September 20th, 2023 Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroide
Karl Marx, in his 1846 book, The German Ideology, said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.”
The book, as a whole, deals with how; through social dynamics and the establishment of a ruling class, the human race has been able to distinguish itself from other animal species and develop into the complex arrangement of systems that we see today.
The change Marx spoke of was revolution, both in thought and action. He believed that it is change and the push for change that aids in the development and furtherment of the human race and that it is every person’s duty to constantly evaluate the need for change.
In the modern world we see the clash between change and tradition happening on a daily basis; the erosion of traditional cultures, languages and ideas and the catalytic explosion into an all-connected age of social media and instant communication.
Being a complex system, the analogy also applies to the sporting world. The more complex the game, the more change it will inevitably have to deal with.
Rugby, being one of the most complex games in the world, will always subject to evolution. Look at how much rugby has changed in the last hundred years.
Look at how much it has changed since 1996 when it went professional. There was revolution then with Rupert Murdoch’s breakaway Super Rugby just as there is revolution now with the Heineken Cup.
On the field, players have become bigger, stronger and faster while game plans have evolved to deal with these changes.
What I would like to talk about are four Southern Hemisphere players whose skill sets could significantly add to the evolution of their team’s game plan.
South Africa – Willie le Roux
If you didn’t watch the magnificent Rugby Championship decider between New Zealand and South Africa then you would have missed the coming to fruition of a new era of South African rugby and a star that is going to take them there.
Often chided for playing a limited, kick first, pressure form of footy, South Africa’s problem over the years has been their size.
They are just giant people and this has fostered a “monster” mentality; “We are bigger than you, so we will monster you into submission. We will use our size and strength to intimidate you into making mistakes.”
When the game was kick heavy, such as 2009, when the ill-fated ELVs made players too scared to run the ball, this game plan was perfect. However, generally, the seven point option has been much more effective and this is where Willie le Roux is revolutionising the Springboks.
At 80kgs, he is much smaller than the big bustling wing prototype that has been in vogue since Jonah Lomu pioneered the idea, but he is nimble, smart and he knows the best place for the ball to be (which is not always in his hands.)
Bryan Habana scored two great tries but I think his contribution was overshadowed by Le Roux’s.
Habana is an excellent finisher and creates tries for himself, but this can be somewhat predictable. In LeRoux, Heyneke Meyer has discovered a dynamic ball-player that can break the line and then link with the classic finishers that South Africa possess.
His background as a 10 means he can hold up the defensive line and his attacking nous means he can finish as well.
South Africa haven’t had such a clever player for a while and it’s no surprise that their attack is going better with him there.
New Zealand – Aaron Smith
It was tempting to put Brodie Retallick here because New Zealand often play a bruiser as their second lock (think Thorn/Romano) while Retallick has more subtle ball playing skills that he uses in midfield a lot, however the prize goes to Aaron Smith because the All Blacks have completely based their game plan on his skillset.
When Smith came into the team at the beginning of 2012, Steve Hansen stated that the All Blacks wanted to speed up their game plan and go to a new level of play.
Smith was key to this approach.
His most valuable asset is the speed and accuracy of his pass which is also unique in that he squeezes the ball out between his thumb and forefinger.
Many have compared him to Graham Bachop (New Zealand’s nine in the 1995 World Cup) who was pretty much just a link man, but the speed he was able to get the ball out to Lomu and Wilson meant their skills were maximised.
Smith is in the same category.
His pass is affording wider players like Ben Smith time to find gaps and the All Blacks are benefiting.
The interesting point here is that this game plan is now two years old and like England showed, it can be shut down with the right amount of intensity, however New Zealand is also on the brink of bringing in a man called TJ Perenara who many are predicting will be even better.
Argentina – Pablo Matera
You may have seen Matera in this year’s Rugby Championship as the bullish young Argentinian open side tearing up yardage through established defences.
At only 20 years old, he has quickly made his mark at International level and will be a forward runner that Argentina will base their momentum on for the foreseeable future.
His play may not be evolving the Argentinian game plan as such, but they do have a lot of older players in their forwards pack and Matera is going to be an integral part in replacing players such as Juan Manuel Leguizamón and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe.
It’s also interesting to note that Matera (at 6 foot 4) has been selected at 7.
This, I believe, is a very clever utilisation of the fact that the days of the pure pilferer are at an end.
Tacklers are now being taught to blow out beyond the tackled player in an effort to clear out opposition and create a fairly simple turnover, rather than getting involved in a 50/50 turnover situation that may lead to a penalty.
Of course, pilfers are still going to happen, but look at how much bigger open sides are this year than a few years ago.
Matera fits this bill and he should be Argentina’s go-to forward in the coming years.
Australia – ?
Australia was the most difficult team to choose from.
There have been many players in the last few years that have arrived on the scene and promised a revolution in play – Tatafu Polota Nau brought an unbridled cannonball ferocity, Sitaleki Timani was a giant, Will Genia, a savant like calm while Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper and James O’Connor showed intense genius.
However, you could arguably say that Genia was the only one that really evolved the Wallabies. The rest were the victims (or orchestrators) of consistency, injury or Tom-foolery.
So who is there now that can positively change the way the Wallabies play?
The easy answer is Israel Folau.
He has had a wonderful year and is obviously an amazing athlete but is he going to revolutionise Australia?
Is he going to do much more than a Digby Ioane might? Maybe… but I’m going to plump for Christian Lealiifano.
Even though he hasn’t really shown it yet, Lealiifano has the game to take Australia to another level.
When he was with the Crusaders, Robbie Deans was a staunch supporter of the double playmaker idea and often ran Dan Carter or Aaron Mauger in the 12 slot.
However, when he went to the Wallabies, for some reason he went for 12s with very limited skill sets. Perhaps it was a lack of options, but players like McCabe, Horne and Fainga’a would never have been 12 in Deans’s Crusaders teams.
Deans must of cursed Lealiifano’s ankle in 2012 when he went out. My guess is that Deans might still have his job now if he could have developed Christian on that tour instead of having to deal with immature prima donnas.
Lealiifano has an excellent running and distribution game which includes a beautiful looping long ball.
That is something Australia hasn’t had in the centres since Matt Giteau pre 2008.
Of course, Lealiifano hasn’t quite produced it all yet and many pundits will soon be pumping for Kyle Godwin, but if they want Folau and the other outsides involved in the game then they have to get him the ball.
Playing multiple play-makers is the best way to do that and Lealiifano has enough quality to revolutionise the Australian back line.
So, as the fans, the coaches and the rugby world drive change off the field, so too must the players drive change on the field.
Marx may not have been a rugby fan but he may have liked the way these players are challenging the traditional perspectives and skills of their respective teams.
Roarers, is there anyone I missed?