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South African rugby is like a box of chocolates

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Roar Guru
26th March, 2019
11
1264 Reads

My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

In the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks utters this simple yet unforgettable line and it has become an appropriate summary of South African rugby at this present time.

It might be a simplistic way of looking at the state of the game in South Africa, but it is none the less an accurate description of what we as Springbok fans can get use to for the foreseeable future.

A season which began with so much hope and expectation from three out of the four South African Super Rugby franchises is already beginning to magnify and reflect a problem the Springboks have had for many a year and maddeningly continue to have.

The Bulls have shown glimpses of their title-winning former selves based on their power game and accurate tactical kicking, annihilating both the Sharks and Lions. Yet they were utterly embarrassed on their home turf by a then-winless Chiefs team.

The Sharks also started off their season in style but have almost reverted back to their old, confusing, inexplicable-loss-of-form ways, losing to a Stormers side that has been on the decline for years.

The Lions are a shell of their former selves this season. While they are still scoring tries, their defence and game management is nothing near what brought them to two consecutive grand final appearances.

Damian Willemse

(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

The Stormers are in debt, with a limited game plan and one of South Africa’s most promising playmakers, Damian Willemse, wasting valuable game-time experience by riding the pine.

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While Super Rugby form has no direct correlation to whether the Springboks have a stellar season or win a World Cup, it is very concerning when comparing ourselves to the New Zealand teams in particular and some European heavyweight clubs like Saracens and Leinster.

The lack of consistency is infuriating for fans and for the coaches of our respective teams.

They must be tempted on a weekly basis to go see a psychiatrist in a padded room.

While Kiwi teams don’t always win imperiously, there is some semblance of consistency throughout their campaigns.

The Hurricanes are a perfect example of this at the moment. They’re playing particularly poorly but they’re managing to grind out wins.

Besides the Lions’ scope and imagination of previous seasons, all our teams suffer from a regimented implementation of the coaches’ structure in terms of ‘the game plan’.

In South Africa, depending on where they are on the field, each team and player seems almost indoctrinated about what the coaches wants him to do in that situation, regardless of other options the player may have at his disposal.

Instead of playing what’s in front of you, you revert to type and play how you are instructed to.

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I am not saying we don’t need coaches and their expertise for one second – game plans are there for a reason – but coaches need to be more flexible in their approach and their players need to ad-lib more.

What we would like to see more of from a South African point of view is giving the players freedom in how they want to play and critically, to make mistakes without judgement.

New Zealand and to a lesser extent Australian players, whilst adhering to a set-out game plan, have more licence on the field to make their own choices and the team collectively deal with those consequences.

In South Africa we are still way behind the eight ball in terms of producing a game plan that doesn’t solely rely on a strong kicking game and a driving line-out.

Combined, these two core skills have won the Boks two Rugby World Cups. The key ingredient within those wins was consistency of application, consistency of selection and consistency of game plan.

But also a consistency of understanding your opponent and what stage of the game you might be in, be it the loss of momentum or having momentum.

Of late, if these two weapons are nullified, what else do South African teams have to offer in trying to win a game of rugby?

A perfect example of players being given a license to play what is front of them are the Hurricanes and Crusaders.

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TJ Perenara

(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Both have a two-pass policy when returning a kick, trying to move the ball as quickly as possible the middle of the field, thus opening up the space and width for various options on the counter attack.

South African teams seem more intent on kicking first. The problem however lies in the fact that more often than not the kick isn’t well placed and the opposition simply gathers the ball and can then return it with interest.

It is rather ironic that one of our most important attacking weapons – kicking – is a skill we don’t get as right as we would like to on a regular basis.

Warrick Gelant, the precocious Bulls fullback, is a superb example of a player who looks to keep ball in hand as a primary option when returning a kick.

He is a sumptuous breath of fresh air when it comes to South African players showcasing their attacking skills and attempting to keep the ball in hand first and then kick if the space disappears.

A kicking game must not be abandoned and we shouldn’t run everything regardless of the situation – that would be ignorant and foolish.

What must be done by all players in this country is to see further than their noses are long.

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Keep in mind the game plan your team uses in a certain parts of the field, but if there is a chance to attack and keep the ball alive by looking to offload or manipulating the defence in a particular way, this must be first prize and always top of mind.

The players and especially the senior players need to take more responsibility in this regard by reading the ebb and flow of a game in the heat of the moment.

It seems as if the players are constantly waiting to do what their coach tells them to.

Fans appreciate and are understanding of players who take risks. No player makes mistakes on purpose but there must be a bigger picture involved – not being afraid to think for yourself.

For South African rugby, it is one thing beating the All Blacks in Wellington last season – a victory fully deserved – but losing to a weak Australian side the previous weekend takes the gloss off such a historic win.

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Unless there is some form of alignment and consistency by all stakeholders of South African rugby, from grassroots level to the Springboks, our teams will continually be a box of chocolates.

You just don’t know what you’re gonna get.

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