Mind Games: Time for fly half reform is now

2013-10-15 10:00

“There needs to be acknowledgement of the reality that the All Blacks are just better at almost every facet that goes into making up a successful rugby team. When it comes to attitude, ambition and achievement, the All Blacks are way out in front.”

These words were penned in an article I wrote in late 2012 – a year ago.

And with the Springboks again having been vanquished by the All Blacks in their two matches this year, the undeniable fact is that those words are still relevant.

There was a justifiable outcry when erroneous action against Bismarck du Plessis corrupted the first test in Auckland. But there is no getting away from the fact that at Ellis Park the All Blacks underlined their superiority. This in spite of them having to get through two crucial periods of 10 minutes in the second half with only 14 men.

The Springboks could take some encouragement from the fact that they scored four tries against the world’s number one side, but there was much to be downhearted about.

The Springbok performance was riddled with errors in areas where they are meant to be strong and, but for the scrums, where the new law applications are playing into South Africa’s hands, there is much to be concerned about looking ahead to the 2015 World Cup.

It is my contention that the Springboks are not “on the right road” and that some serious reassessment is required.

There are obvious worries over one lock position, centre, tighthead prop and whether the mix of the loose forwards is correct.

But to me the biggest question is whether Morné Steyn is the right fly half to unlock the vibrancy that lies dormant in the Springbok back line.

This is not to say that Steyn is not a good player. The fact that he is arguably the game’s most accurate goalkicker makes a compelling case for him to stay in the No 10 jersey.

His supporters will point out that two of the Springboks’ tries came from miss-out passes he executed skilfully, one each to Vermeulen and Louw, but it cannot be argued that he lacks variation. He lacks this both in his kicking out of hand and in carrying and passing the ball.

Steyn tends to either pass or kick – he hardly ever breaks or carries the ball to the line. He does not attempt to play the loose forwards into the game, probe the blindside, vary the depth or width of where he receives the ball or bring to bear the full arsenal of kicks available to him.

Steyn’s predictability is one of the reasons the Springboks tend to run their outside backs into the touchline. Opposition defences drift off him, as they do not fear him doing something different.

The All Blacks have an array of attack-minded fly halves to fall back on – from Dan Carter to Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Tom Carter. But the Springboks are stuck in a stilted pattern – perhaps best illustrated by imagining what it would be like having one of the Kiwi fly halves running on to the ball so adroitly distributed by Fourie du Preez.

The question of a kicker versus a runner is almost as old as Springbok rugby itself – Piet Visage or Jannie Barnard? Gerald Bosch or Gavin Cowley? Naas Botha or Hennie le Roux? The default position has always been the former.

But the game has changed. The IRB wants it to be more of a spectacle. Carrying, passing and running with the ball is being encouraged and I believe it is time for the Springboks to move on; to set the tone rather than try to beat the All Blacks with a pattern that has worked in the past, but which is now too easily decoded.

On the forthcoming tour, it might well be time to let Patrick Lambie have his head rather than put him in a straitjacket; perhaps Johan Goosen will be ready, with the same proviso, to develop a bold pattern in which Willie le Roux comes into the fly half channel more often or the likes of Elton Jantjies, Handré Pollard or Demetri Catrakilis try to add an attacking dimension.

What is missing is that element of surprise and the time to seek it is now, while mistakes can still be made, tolerated and rectified.

In 2015, it will be too late.

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