Carel du Plessis chats to Sport24

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok coach CAREL DU PLESSIS talks new trends, finding a balance between brain and brawn, and looks ahead to South Africa's Test against Argentina in Salta on Saturday.

Sport24 asked: Since signing off from professional coaching, how have you channelled your passion for the oval game?

Carel du Plessis: I’m involved in a business that provides sports technology to clients, and part of it is analysis of rugby. As a result, from statistical data, I have a good understanding of the new trends which have developed within the game. For example, over the last few seasons, in a broader sense, the ball-in-play time has increased markedly. I’ve observed how the top teams, in particular, have and continue to up the ante in terms of active time in play, ball possession and field position.

Sport24 asked: Los Pumas legend Hugo Porta has described the modern game as a “war of muscles”. Do you believe there is now a greater emphasis on physicality rather than flair?

Carel du Plessis: Not necessarily. While athletes are stronger, fitter and better-conditioned for the demands of the game today, I believe that the oval game continually evolves. We experienced a phase in the game where a lot of play was built around the ball-carrier and the resultant momentum. However, I’m of the opinion that much of the game is now centred around creating line-breaks in order to manipulate defence systems, which have really improved over time. Bulky ball-carriers are always important, but flair players like Willie le Roux, for instance, are worth their weight in gold. Ultimately, a coach’s objective is to find an ideal balance between brain and brawn.

Sport 24 asked: How would you grade the current Springbok side coached by Heyneke Meyer? Have you seen enough signs of initiative and innovation?

Carel du Plessis: We have traditionally built our game around physicality and strong first-phase. In the past decade, because our game was focused largely on power-play it became rather predictable. Under Meyer’s mentorship, the Boks have become less one-dimensional. Meyer has seen the value in selecting a player like Le Roux, and I would encourage him to select a few more stars with a similar skill-set. It’s crucial that the consumer of the product remains excited by the brand of rugby played.

Sport24 asked: Former Saru CEO Rian Oberholzer described you as a visionary. Do you believe you were ahead of your time in terms of the playing philosophy you aimed to introduce in 1997?

Carel du Plessis: It’s difficult for me to say whether or not I was ahead of my time, but I believe it’s healthy for professional rugby coaches to have different approaches and philosophies to the game. What I enjoy from certain coaches today, is seeing skills being coached into both forwards’ and backs’ play. For example, the evasive skill involved when targeting a soft spot in a defender rather than hitting the wall the whole time. The implication of this is that you then need to somewhat alter the structure of your attacking formation. While defence is important, I have always believed that the game is as much about offence. The shape of your attack, attacking formations and positioning of your support play is vital, and the top rugby teams have made significant strides in this regard.

Sport24 asked: Meyer has said that the Boks’ fitness levels need to improve considerably if they are to consistently challenge, and beat, the best sides in world rugby? What’s your take?

Carel du Plessis: Fitness and conditioning are always important aspects to work on, but I believe that you must first understand the base from which you are working. For instance, if a coach comes out and says that he feels his side’s fitness levels are questionable, he must then go back and determine the team’s energy-efficiency in terms of their playing philosophy. If a team focuses on a possession-based game strategy, then they will naturally burn more energy than those that do not. As such, a team’s style of play will dictate the fitness levels that need to be supported. Furthermore, if fitness levels remain questionable, I believe it is paramount to examine and manage player workload better.

Sport24 asked: You faced South America on your Springbok debut in 1982. Outline for us the long-held camaraderie between the two countries?

Carel du Plessis: While the ’82 test match was a proud moment and memorable day for me as a player, I took equal delight in playing against Argentinian club sides on tour. In a way, I’ve always seen South Africa as a caretaker for the growth of Argentinian rugby. While the current Pumas side are now playing in a different forum, I believe there has always been a mutual respect and healthy rivalry between the two teams. While the Boks have historically been technically superior, the South Americans have always proved highly-motivated and competitive. When the Pumas improve their visual awareness and all-round skill-base, I believe they will prove even harder opponents to beat.

Sport24 asked: Please offer your prediction ahead of South Africa’s clash with Argentina this Saturday, and in which facets of play you believe the game will ultimately be won or lost.

Carel du Plessis: First and foremost, I believe the abysmal weather conditions in the first Test were a true leveller. While Argentina were more than competitive at set-piece, it will be interesting to see if they’re able to live with the Springboks’ power and pace in dry conditions. Moreover, I’m not convinced the Pumas have the ability to create many too line-breaks. As such, I see the visitors finishing on the winning side of the scoreboard. While an away win will prove most pleasing, I feel that leaving with a four-try bonus point will be crucial in terms of the Boks’ ultimate log position.  

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