Mind Games: The best thing about the Currie Cup final

2014-10-26 15:00

The best thing about yesterday’s Currie Cup final was this: it was ­contested by the two teams that played the most enterprising rugby during the competition.

During the league segment of the tournament, Western Province finally shook off the defensive shackles that were so at odds with their tradition. And on the way to Newlands, the Lions impressed friend and foe with their running game.

The decline of Province/Stormers into a safety-first, defence-minded outfit was puzzling, given that they were blessed with so many brilliantly gifted attacking players – the likes of Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh and Joe Pietersen in ­recent years.

But between the Super Rugby tournament and the Currie Cup something changed, and Western Province began to run the ball again.

It’s not clear whether it was the arrival of Gert Smal as head coach. Or was it the incendiary attributes of Cheslin Kolbe and Seabelo Senatla, or even that attack-minded back line coach Robbie Fleck finally started to assert himself? Or did he simply have to work around the game plan?

Whatever, the fact that Province have again gone in search of the try line can only be good for South African rugby.

On the other side, the tactics of the Lions have, in some mediums, been hailed as revolutionary and heralding a new approach in South African rugby.

The fact is, however, that there is not much that is original in what ­happened at Ellis Park.

What did change, was attitude.

Lions coach Johan Ackermann has ­inculcated a mind-set in which attack plays a big role, as well as a culture that encourages players to push the envelope, to try something inventive or out of the ordinary.

Speak to any of the Lions and the phrase ‘if it’s on, we have a go’ will crop up in the conversation.

Ackermann’s method – strong fundamentals (the Lions’ dominant scrum), along with constant running and passing – can be found in manuals dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, perhaps even earlier.

But what the former Springbok lock and his assistant coach Swys de Bruin have managed to do is widen the horizons of their group of underrated players.

They have encouraged them to believe that pace, passing, constant movement and slick skills are the way to outwit and outflank bigger and stronger teams.

They have also instilled an infectious joie de vivre that is palpable when you watch the Lions play.

And it is their team spirit – hard work on the training field and the backing of their coaches to strive for the extravagant – that has carried them to improbably big victories (like the 50-20 over the Sharks in the semi-final), where other teams might have become discouraged.

The influence of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell is still discernible, given New Zealand rugby’s love of the ball-in-hand game.

But what the Lions have done with their team of no-name-brand players (their phrase not mine) – mainly those unable to get contracts at other unions or those coming back from injury – has shown up the folly of the kick-as-the-first-option morass into which South African rugby had fallen.

They have worked on their skills; they have been encouraged to scan the field constantly for opportunities; they have been drilled to kick judiciously and, most of all, to run in support; and they have been taught to provide back up and to anticipate that a team-mate may suddenly attack.

This has been the key difference made by the Lions – an attitude alert to deception, guile and daring, and an understanding that ­successful running rugby is often not about the man carrying the ball but about the man who may next receive it.

And rugby played like that can be a beauty, creating a game of infinite possibilities.

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