Mind Games: The four P’s: position, possession, pace and, erm, support

2014-12-17 07:00

Seasoned rugby broadcast commentator Hugh Bladen is fond of relating the tale, which may be apocryphal, of the occasion when the great Frik du Preez was asked to speak to the boys at a famous New Zealand rugby school.

Uncomfortable with having to speak English, Big Frik decided to make it short and sharp. “Never forget boys,” he told them, “rugby is about the four Ps – position, possession, pace and support!”

The spelling corruption might be amusing, but the word is crucial to winning rugby; never more so than in Sevens – the mini version of the game that in 2016 will be part of the Olympics.

Successful Sevens can also be broken down into a letter-based formula – the 5 Ss of Sevens: speed, skill, space, stamina and, of course, support. Then there is a player such as Seabelo Senatla – a youngster whose physical attributes of power, pace, anticipation and vision make him a Sevens machine.

But Senatla, and here’s the point of this column, could be a genuine cross-over creature – a player whose qualities can be switched into “proper” XVs rugby.

He’s not the only one. Cheslin Kolbe, for instance, has already shown what he can do on a field with more players, and bear in mind that New

Zealand have made a custom of blooding promising players in Sevens – to wit Jonah Lomu, who first wore the black jersey in the Sevens format. But in South Africa, there has been a tendency to brand outstanding Sevens players as being too small for the hurly-burly of XVs, where the mantra is “forwards win matches”.

Dynamic players such as Brent Russell and Gio Aplon suffered because of this prejudice. They were given chances but were never allowed the extended opportunity to make their claims stick.

Top-class Blitzbokke Fabian Juries, Mzwandile Stick and Cecil Afrika were never able to gain traction in XVs.

But recently, there has been a heartening change in attitude by some coaches – notably at the Golden Lions, where Johan Ackermann has incorporated the scintillating Sevens skills of players such as Warren Whiteley, Kwagga Smith and Jaco Kriel.

Crucially, Ackermann picked players for what they are able to do and encouraged them to apply these traits rather than omit them for fear of what they couldn’t do in terms of brute force.

At Springbok level, Heyneke Meyer did take Senatla on tour to introduce him to the culture of the Springboks, the requirements of touring and to see how he fitted in, but it is my contention that more cross-pollination should take place in the other direction. On the recent tour, the Boks were caught short when Ireland, Wales, England and Italy worked out their tendency for the ball carrier to simply crash into the nearest man.

They sent men in at the feet of South Africa’s big men, had two “pilferers” waiting to lean over and grab the turnover, and were never defensively stretched because of how predictable the Boks’ method of attack is.

Players including Duane Vermeulen, Marcell Coetzee (have you ever seen him make a pass?), Willem Alberts, Teboho Mohojé and Eben Etzebeth, and even some of the backs, would benefit enormously from a spell in Sevens.

Instead of trying to run over or through people (a tactic that is sometimes required), they will have to learn to beat them with a pass, a step or a piece of deception.

They will learn about space and how to exploit it; how to place yourself in a position where you can be passed to; and how, as in football, to beat an opponent even before you receive the ball.

It’s not about breaking down or retreating from the fundamentals of Springbok rugby – big powerful men, refractory tackling and uncompromising physicality – it’s about adding new dimensions to these attributes.

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