I must admit sitting in front of my PC attempting to write something about South African rugby feels like going to confession.
“It has been 18 months since my last positive thought about South African rugby.”
Anyhow, here goes nothing.
I think it is time to be brutally honest, as objective as possible and attempt to find a realistic solution for South African rugby.
A substance-dependant person is told that the first step to solving a problem is to admit there is a problem.
And let’s be honest. South African rugby has a problem. A big problem. Here, I’ll turn to my friend Harry.
Harry: Yes, we have a big problem, and I’m generally an optimist. Our best players are deciding early in their careers whether to be Irish or Scottish or Springboks. We only had one decent Super Rugby team. We are setting records for “firsts:” every old rival is hungry to play us. In the latest world rankings, after a run of losses, the Springboks are ranked sixth, with no sign they will rise before the 2019 Rugby World Cup pools are chosen.
Biltongbek: For the first time (ever?) the Boks were legitimate underdogs with the bookies in Cardiff on an End of Year tour, and the result in Italy was not really that shocking. The loss in Durban to the All Blacks was the worst home defeat in history; by the end, the Boks were praying for the final whistle.
The ineffective Bok captain is retiring with no clear successor in line, and the feckless Bok coaching team is seen by all astute observers as completely out of its depth. A national rugby intervention-indaba came and went; the only revelations were that we kick poorly and need more coaches. SARU is mostly concerned with keeping the Minister of Sport happy.
But just as with addiction, after we admit we have a problem, we have to delve into the issues that caused or continue our problem.
Biltongbek: Apart from private schools, traditional rugby schools and previously known as model C schools (let’s just call them what they were: white schools) there is no real sustainable system for grass roots.
Amateur rugby clubs in South Africa hardly get a cent from SARU, and are for the most part struggling entities.
The reality is that nobody apart from these same old schools and clubs do anything to expand or grow the roots of rugby.
Which leaves 80 per cent of the South African population having never touched a rugby ball.
Harry: Yes. Do we even know if they would love rugby? Have we given them an opportunity to learn a game that almost any young person who loves contact sports ends up admiring? Kids play sports because they fall in love with the game, and start to imagine they are stars. What are we doing to expand that field?
Biltongbek: The school systems tend to be elitist; nepotism and favours still cut out many of the best players, who are neglected or ignored right when they could go to the next level.
There is also the philosophy of coaching at school level. An obsession with the set piece plays a big role, and a fixation on kicking another.
Harry: South African teams usually bring a strong set piece. That’s well and good. But in many games now, there are fewer than ten completed scrums and less than twenty lineouts; but 200 or more rucks and tackle-points, with their juicy turnover ball possible. Also, exploiting bad kicks or restarts by the opposition is something South African teams overlook; this is bread-and-butter for the other SANZAAR nations and now, the Irish and English.
Biltongbek: Most teams will have appointed ball carriers, and anyone else wanting to partake in a real game of rugby is doomed to hitting rucks, making tackles and performing at set piece.
Ball-handling skills are not taught on a deep and sustainable level. There is little focus on running lines, creating overlaps, keeping the ball alive, or shifting the point of contact via offloads or multiple channels in the backline with decoy runners and feints.
Harry: South African coaches tend to discourage the ‘Sonny Bill’ by focusing on the inevitable handling errors an offload game brings at first. In general, errors are highlighted as “the reason” our teams lose. Witness the post-game alibis of almost every Allister Coetzee or Heyneke Meyer or Jake White loss: they will point to some bobbled kick or a lost lineout or a “pass that didn’t stick,” instead of a broader view of which team seized momentum or applied pressure.
Biltongbek: The conservative mindset within the school system of South Africa shines through like a beacon.
Although a scarcity, an attack-minded risk-tolerant coach prepared to go against the conservative and encouraging his youngsters to fully express themselves and rather than running at the defence with their biggest or fastest ball carrier, teach visionary playmakers to find or create space and offload to support runners on good hard lines, is mesmerising.
Harry: And if we are to open new doors to new players in Africa, that will have to be the future. A look at what our Blitzboks deliver year-in and year-out shows that clearly.
Biltongbek: We indict those in charge that South Africans do not embrace modern rugby, and stoically hold onto the past.
Harry: A more attack-minded, ball-handling, speed-orientated game plan goes hand-in-hand with increasing player stocks and attracting non-rugby players to the game, too. Which is why it made no sense to appoint Allister Coetzee, he who favoured an even Jakier-Jakeball than Jake, for years, over someone like Johan Ackermann, or even Meyer.
Biltongbek: When I think about SARU, my immediate though goes to those old gentlemen’s clubs in England where you had to achieve a certain status before being welcomed into the inner sanctum of high society. And the status quo was protected come hell or high water.
Harry: The high backed chairs of leather, the tea service, the stale scones, the chime of the bell.
Biltongbek: SARU administration is very similar in my mind. The problem in my opinion is that when a dozen or more “old school” minds come together there is very little in way of creative or out of the box thinking.
South African rugby structures have not changed with the times, one almost get the feeling the old boys are too busy covering their arses to hold on to their positions, that there is no energy left in these poor old sods to make a difference anymore.
Harry: Yes, the clichés-per-minute used by amateurish rugby bosses in South Africa are the highest in the world. “We must not play rugby in the wrong half. We have to have front foot ball. We played too much rugby. We must keep it tight.” Very little analytics. Almost no study of rest or nutrition or game-planning.
Again, the status quo remains.
Biltongbek: I have touched on the coaching at school level, when it comes to senior rugby, you will find many amateur coaches and perhaps one or two professional coaches of the ilk of Johan Ackerman who is embracing a positive ball in hand approach to rugby.
Harry: Varsity Cup is still a place for innovation. But the second the national or provincial coaches get a hold of the youngsters, they seem to become constrained and fear making errors.
Biltongbek: Sadly, by the time we reach Super Rugby and International level those brave adventurous souls have disappeared and it is back to square one.
One or two dedicated crash ball carriers, and the rest of the team is there to make up the numbers, complete the set pieces and watch the ball having the leather kicked of it, while waiting to make the next tackle.
Harry: Our philosophies of realignment on attack or counter are woefully simplistic. Witness how easily two Eddie Jones-coached teams found the seams. Also, a persistent lack of lean fitness makes us fear fast-ball, when we should profit from fast-ball, having more access to more speed than any other top rugby nation.
Biltongbek: “There is no substitute for experience” Well there is and there isn’t. When a bright star is shining and has shown in a short space of time that he can deliver the time comes for the old guard to retire and to trust the young guns.
A lot can be said about maintaining a balance between experience and youthful exuberance.
But when it comes to selection, South Africa love to hold onto senior players, it seems the only criteria is if you don’t need a walker to move around, you are still eligible to play.
Heyneke Meyer took players to the 2015 Rugby World Cup that should have retired in 2011. Some should have retired in 2007.
Harry: He also blooded some good youngsters and wasn’t afraid to throw a 20-year old Handre Pollard into the hot seat. This actually proves your point, because Pollard isn’t afraid to beat New Zealand. He’s done it a lot, at the junior and once at the senior level. Whereas some players we throw in against the All Blacks (Beast Mtawarira, JP Pietersen, even Bryan Habana) look fine with losing to them.
Biltongbek: I am also a firm believer that an old dog cannot learn new tricks. When South Africa failed at the 2011 Rugby World Cup with players who won the 2007 world cup nobody saw the writing on the wall.
The players who won the 2007 Rugby World Cup failed to adapt to the new laws in 2010, and if you don’t believe me, go have a look at Pieter de Villiers’ record in his last two years against Tier one rugby nations.
Those same players now much older and still not able to adapt under Meyer failed last year.
Some may say, “well they lost to the All Blacks by only 2 points”
Really? They were always going to lose by a few points. Why? Because South African rugby is built on the premises of taking no risks, take your kicks, and if you are awake enough to spot the counter opportunity, take it, but make damn sure you don’t make a mistake.
Harry: For me, the key is to retain those strengths (the ability to suffocate the All Blacks or Wallabies) and add the lethality of counter-attack and scoring (as seen in Chicago).
Biltongbek: That game plan has not worked against New Zealand since 2009.
There is a time though where experience is an absolutely necessity and not negotiable. When you consider the hundreds of South African rugby players going overseas you often hear “but South Africa has so much player depth”, yes that is true, but it is not the whole truth.
The loss of rugby intellect, experience, ethics, knowledge, call it what you will, that is lost with every senior rugby player leaving a South African Provincial team is a loss greater than the talent of ability you lose.
Harry: Yes, when you look at a club like the Saracens or Montpellier or Ulster, the core group of experienced South African leaders (Schalk Burger, Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar) are so instrumental in mentoring the young Premiership, Top14, and Pro12 players, and are clearly beloved by the locals. Also, for our opensiders (who are they?) they are robbed of actually seeing what Francois Louw and Heinrich Brussow actually do on the deck, and so someone gets called “a great fetcher,” when all they are is OK.
Biltongbek: Young players need leaders, someone who is an example of how to be a professional sportsman, how to be mentally strong, how to train, how to play the game, someone who leads by example and someone transferring their vast knowledge of the game.
Biltongbek: I don’t have anyone famous to quote here, but a little wisdom of my own, if you fail to plan you plan to fail, and when you fail to have a succession plan you break down continuity of thought, game plan and transfer of knowledge.
Ever since the appointment of Nick Mallett, every coach coming to the end of his tenure walked away with a vast knowledge of structure, players, specialists in their field and in most cases on bad terms with his employer.
If it was one coach you might suggest it was the individual, but having this scenario repeated with just about every coach since Mallett, you have to start thinking it is the suits in HQ.
Without having to go into detail, one can only wonder why?
Biltongbek: Transformation is here to stay, however true transformation should not be window dressing but real and sustainable transformation, it can work, you just need to look at the Blitzbokke to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The will to be the best.
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? I suppose it depends whether the light bulb wants to change.
Based on current evidence the question that really should be asked first and foremost is whether SARU actually do want to change, whether they still believe that South African rugby can be world leaders.
There are many different ways you can skin a cat, and once I have my thoughts together I will endeavour to suggest how I would go about fixing South African rugby.
Chances that someone might actually listen though is somewhere between zero and when hell freezes over.
Yeah, I know, stop complaining and provide answers. Watch this space.