Win the war, not the battle

Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)
Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)

South Africa has lost a rugby icon. Basil Bey fell into a coma last week and died shortly thereafter. It was mercifully quick after a painful battle with cancer that was grinding him down.  

Basil coached the Bishops 1st team from 1972 to 1998 and in that time enjoyed four unbeaten seasons. I was fortunate enough to play in two of them.

A true rugby romantic, Basil would often call the rugby field a blank canvass, and then ask us to be the artists. He made sure that Bishops maintained their tradition of playing without numbers on their jerseys because all that did was pigeon hole a player into a role. Rugby may be a game for all shapes and sizes, but Basil expected all of us to be able to execute all the skills needed to play the game.

“Stop kicking the bloody ball away” was a line often heard in the Monday video session as we players took to the boot more often than he would have liked in tight games.

And as Paul Dobson said in his tribute to Basil, “They played the most adventurous, exciting brand of rugby, known as Bishops rugby - rugby played with romance, enthusiasm, energy, skill and courage. Full of the confidence that freedom gives, they would do it all with a smile, rugby packed with enjoyment.”

Which is true, hence it being so much fun. But having given some thought over the years, and most especially over the last few days, perhaps what Basil got most right on the rugby field, was understanding that being powerful up front, and having a watertight defence, then enabled you to play an expansive game.

Most modern day coaches see a strong pack and Fort Knox like defence as tools for a blunt force trauma type approach to the game. A bit like what we saw from the Boks against England. Instead Basil saw these as a framework on which to hang a more adventurous, brave, ball in hand game.

His front rows in the ’88 and ’89 teams were heavier than the WP front row at the time. Of the four players who made the SA Schools side in ’89, three were tight forwards. Yet Basil is remembered as a romantic, a man who created art between the four white lines. That is because he was a supreme strategist who utilised his big guns not only to win the battle, but to unleash the army so as to win the war.

It’s what the Kiwis do so well - they kick more than other teams, but they kick to contest. And they utilise blunderbusses and beautiful passing to recycle the ball out wide - where other teams are traditionally weak on defence. Together with a player mindset that looks to entertain, they hang an attacking game on a few big guns.

And it’s where Allister Coetzee has perhaps gone the most wrong. You do not give up a watertight defence in order to play attacking rugby. Instead utilise that defence to create attacking opportunities by making big hits so as to deliver that most golden of ball - turnover ball.

You do not give up opposition lineout ball so as to have more people on the ground to defend the driving maul, or to have forwards adding to defensive lines out back. Instead get in the air to not only create doubt in the opposition hooker’s mind, but also to again generate turnover ball via a steal so you can attack a deeper aligned backline. At worst you have to defend a driving maul - rather that than Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea out wide surely?

Big powerful forwards, a solid kicking strategy executed to perfection, and a defence that would make Big Arnie happy need not equate to a boring blunt force trauma approach. Instead they should be seen as a perfect foundation from which to unleash a more attacking game.

Rest in peace Basil. You meant a hell of a lot to a hell of a lot of people.

Tank Lanning is a former Western Province prop and vociferous tweeter from @frontrowgrunt.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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