It’s not easy to repeat as the missed tackle champion of Super Rugby.
Usually, coaches drop you. Or you learn to tackle. Or the defensive coach is replaced.
Missing a lot of tackles – so many that you the leader in misses – requires several conditions, most of them rare.
First, you have to play a lot of minutes.
Last year, Raymond Rhule led Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship in missed tackles. He missed 38 tackles as a Cheetahs winger.
That’s not abysmal in and of itself. Pieter-Steph du Toit also missed 38 times as a Stormer, but the big lock-flank also completed almost 150 tackles (Rhule only managed about 70 successful stops). PSDT’s 30 “dominant” tackles were only exceeded by star smashers Liam Messam, Michael Hooper, and Siya Kolisi, events which turn games, create turnovers, and lift your team.
None of that happens when Rhule tackles.
He just misses.
I’m not bashing him – the player – for being selected as a Springbok and a Stormer.
A player wants to play. He brings his flaws with him. Rhule looks like a guy who could learn to tackle. He’s quick, laterally as well as straightaway. He’s not afraid. I’ve seen him put his head in front of Liam Squire’s high-pumping knees. He’s built strong. He has very quick reactions.
But it’s not really working. Yes, he breaks the line on offence. But he’s missing 38 per cent of his attempts to tackle this season. Last year, he missed ‘only’ 35 per cent.
Let’s compare that efficacy to the tackle production of the best tackler in Super Rugby over the last decade: the Sunwolves’ steal, Lappies Labuschagne. Lappies has led the total season tackle count several times, yet misses fewer than ten tackles per year. This season Lappies is in the top five top tacklers again, even only having played three games, and has missed only one tackle.
A digression: to lead the competition in missing tackles, it helps to play on a team which has to make a lot of tackles. My Stormers are a good choice for Rhule.
A club coach has to find the best way to work on those flaws with a willing player.
I’m less sympathetic to the national selectors or the club administrators who keep picking Rhule.
And my Stormers are guaranteeing the opposition a good look at two or three tries every round when Rhule is on the wing.
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Of the fourteen missed tackles this season, six tries and three penalties resulted.
Also, Rhule’s teammates expect him to miss, so the cover defence shouts ‘Rhule!’ The umbrella springs into operation. Nizaam Carr, a particularly hard tackler, is racking up big hits by being the ‘second tackler’ after Rhule’s misses.
Rhule does not miss tackles in exactly one way.
He has several styles.
First, the premature dive. When Rhule does this, he goes subterranean at the boots of a big opponent before the man has even started to step.
This might confuse some, but usually they just politely lope around the prostrate matador.
Second, there’s the over-exuberant Muay Thai clinch. Here, Rhule hugs the carrier, but is punched over in a heap.
Third, Rhule adopts a perfect replica of a Labuschagne hit, but misses by a metre, and he looks up as the opposite winger scores, bemused. He typically shakes his head after the “swing-and-a-miss” as if Dale Steyn just bamboozled him with pace. But he’s usually the fastest player on the pitch.
Fourth, he’s fended. Rhule is easily fended. It’s possible someone has failed to inform him he is allowed to counter-fend. He is a very nice guy, so maybe he is actually just not offended by a fend. I was always an especially nasty and truculent player; to me, a fend was an invitation to fight. Not for Rhule. He seems to nod after he eats a hand sandwich, as if to say ‘tasty.’
Finally, Rhule misses some tackles because he’s too fast. That’s never been Lappies’ problem. Lappies crowds a ball carrier because he knows if the guy gets past him, he’s gone. Rhule knows he can catch everyone except Beauden Barrett and Courtnall Skosan, so he uses the Milnerton Matador move, and then chases. But then, as he looks at Ben Smith’s boots, he is hypnotised. He does not even attempt an ankle tap.
Rhule may need to add a few new ways to miss. He faces a real threat: Johnny Faauli, a midfielder for the Chiefs. Faauli has missed as many tackles as Rhule this year, in about half the minutes. Faauli has missed a staggering 42 per cent of his tackles. But as he plays for a Kiwi team, he will fix that or be benched.
So, maybe Rhule’s streak is safe.
His Bok career is likely over, but his Stormers coach seems to still like to play Raymond Roulette.
As a long-suffering Western Province man, this is a new source of misery.