The days of brute force are over

2010-12-04 00:00

IT was back in early August, a time when the Sharks were setting the pace in the Currie Cup and the Springboks were stumbling badly in the Tri-Nations, that John Plumtree suggested that South Africa would have to adapt their tactical approach if they were to remain a power in world rugby.

The new law interpretations, Plumtree pointed out, strongly favoured teams like the All Blacks and Wallabies who were keeping the ball in hand rather than kicking it away, and the Boks needed to change their game if they were not to fall further behind.

“Without wishing to be presumptuous in handing out advice to the Springboks, I would really like to see them playing ball-in-hand rugby. The way the laws are now being blown make that the only logical way to play.

“The Boks certainly have the talent to do it, but they need to be confident about that way of playing and be prepared to work off the ball to make it possible.”

Well, here we are now, four months closer to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and the Springbok coach, caretaker captain Victor Matfield and the senior players have recommitted themselves to the past in looking to the future.

One victory does not a season make, but the Springboks have seized on the stirring, bruising weekend win over England at Twickenham as vindication of their familiar game plan ahead of the World Cup.

Coach Peter de Villiers argues the Springboks have their own style of rugby and they failed in the Tri-Nations because they had shifted away from their traditional approach.

“Opponents do not want us to play like South Africans because they fear us. That is perhaps one of the biggest lessons we have learnt,” he said.

Matfield is singing from the same song sheet (or perhaps he wrote the words).

“This was a victory for our blueprint,” Matfield says of the Twickenham win. “We did show that we don’t need to be following other teams and the way they play. We have our own way of playing.”

Matfield admits that the tour squad — and insiders say that includes certain members of the coaching staff — had to be persuaded to embrace the tried-and-tested approach, one based on physical domination, tactical kicking, pressure and playing for territory, rather than flirt with the evolving game.

“It was all about us getting self-belief back in the game that we play,” says Matfield.

It is, of course, the rugby played so successfully by the Bulls rather than the higher-tempo, modern approach followed by the Sharks, the Lions and, on occasions, the Western Province in the Currie Cup.

The Springbok style, of course, is based on brawny forward power and it is effective when they are in control. Their problems this season surfaced when their pack was rebuffed (by the All Blacks, Wallabies and, for goodness sake, Scotland!). They had no plan B.

The Boks, unlike the New Zealanders and Australians, cannot live off scraps and they express themselves badly when their forwards are not dominant.

They either do not have the creativity and attacking slickness to turn bad into good or those skills are largely ignored.

This all seems a dreadful waste. It is surely not a question of just playing one way or the other. Why can the Springboks not compromise by marrying their traditional strengths to the modern game, using their powerful carriers to breach the gainline but also launching counterattacks, using the laws to their advantage and taking the ball through multiple phases to stretch the opposition’s defences?

Assistant coaches Os du Randt and Gary Gold seem to have done an excellent job with the Springbok tight forwards on tour and there is power and athleticism in the backrow.

The Boks have an abundance of big, mobile, muscular, skilful forwards who can do the basics and also run with the ball. The foundations are in place and South African rugby is bursting with potential.

If they can throw in a flyhalf who can manipulate space and time on the gainline (a Pat Lambie or a properly schooled Morne Steyn), add a counterattacking fullback — a Gio Aplon or Frans Steyn — rather than a kicker and chaser, and, critically, change the mindset, then the Boks would be a dynamic mix.

The change would not have to be dramatic. Tactical kicking, as All Black flyhalf Dan Carter has shown, still plays a vital role, but the trick is to know when to boot the ball and when to run with it.

The Springboks have the raw talent, both fore and aft, to play an invigorating game that exploits both their own strengths and the changing game. It would mean upping the tempo, with players having to work harder off the ball and this would take a number of senior players out of their comfort zone.

It would also, of course, require astute coaching and tactical acumen, qualities which appear in short supply in the Bok squad.

De Villiers will have a number of influential players back from injury next year and the backline, which lacked cohesion and organisation against England, will benefit most.

Fit and in form, Bryan Habana and J.P. Pietersen will challenge on the wings, Jaque Fourie and Juan de Jongh were sorely missed in the midfield, and Fourie du Preez will add composure, rugby nous and an accurate tactical boot at scrumhalf.

John Smit, perhaps at loosehead and providing back-up to hooker Bismarck du Plessis, Gurthro Steenkamp, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow, Andries Bekker and Danie Rossouw all add to the forward options.

And, if Twickenham showed anything, it was that the 30-somethings, Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Jean de Villiers, properly managed, have another World Cup in the tank.

But what the Springboks need is a coherent, cohesive game plan that taps into the team’s talents and does not depend only on the desperate, brutal, sheer bloody-minded approach which carried the day at Twickers.

A country that had two teams playing in the final of the Super 14, and then a Sharks team which beat both in the play-offs to win the Currie Cup, can offer even more than that.

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