Mind Games: Why punish players for being natural?

2014-02-24 10:00

Never mind it was the first game of the season and never mind Durban’s high summer humidity made the ball as slippery as a cake of wet soap last weekend, there was plenty of criticism of the Bulls’ shaky start to their Super Rugby campaign.

Unsurprisingly, most of it was heaped on scrum half Francois Hougaard, around whom the Bulls’ famous kicking game was meant to revolve.

A line in the Bulls’ media guide says that “it’s a given that if Hougaard fires, the Bulls also fire”. The slightly awkward syntax is apt because, yet again, we saw Hougaard battling to adapt to a style of play that does not suit him.

A natural left-footer, always uncomfortable for a scrummie, he has often struggled in the role in which he has been cast – to be the next Fourie du Preez.

Harking back to the days of Heyneke Meyer and subsequent Super Rugby successes, employing the same tactics under Frans Ludeke, the Bulls believe their “process” works even though Hougaard, who as a newcomer was Du Preez’s heir apparent, and Jano Vermaak, now in France, were never quite able to play it.

Ironically, their newest scrum half acquisition, former Cheetah Piet van Zyl, is also not from the kicking school. Sadly, the tendency is to blame the player and not the system.

Hougaard is a fine rugby player with a unique set of skills – so versatile that he was able to slot in on the wing with great success when the Bulls and the Springboks needed him, but the dilemma he now faces to fit in or ship out is all too familiar in South African rugby.

There obviously have to be protocols but too often, instead of adapting a playing style to the strengths of the players available, gifted individuals are forced into straitjackets.

The great Wallaby David Campese – unpredictable, unorthodox and sometimes outrageous – would probably never have been picked had he played in South Africa and too often we see local mavericks forced to change or being scorned because of the things that make them stand out.

South African teams tend to play a predictable pattern with certain game situations leading to easily anticipated sequences. Too often, the objective is to break these set plays through high kicks and pressure on isolated individuals rather than by original and surprise manoeuvres.

In the last few seasons, for instance, the Stormers’ shallow and rushing defence was identified but not exploited until the Sharks, via Patrick Lambie and Charl McLeod, caused them to spring leaks in the Currie Cup final by kicking shorter and forcing their back three to have to rush up to the ball rather than gathering and attacking in space from deep.

It was a simple adaptation, the product of good analysis, which paid off.

Willie le Roux’s introduction into the Springbok side probably went against the grain for Meyer but the fullback’s instinctive liking for attack brought about a change that resulted in the Boks being able to score four tries against the All Blacks at Ellis Park.

Apart from Hougaard, the Bulls have other potentially devastating backs in Jan Serfontein, JJ Engelbrecht, Bjorn Basson, Jurgen Visser, Akona Ndungane and Handré Pollard, but they need to be playing a game

that brings their best qualities to the fore.

Jake White says mental agility is something he learnt from the Aussies, who have won two World Cups with less than a quarter of South Africa’s resources, during his stint in Brisbane with the Brumbies.

There’s a lesson in that for all South African teams: we need more brain and less brawn.

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