Johannesburg - Former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has cautioned South African Super Rugby sides against their newfound penchant for playing without specialist openside flankers in their games, saying it’s a tactic that will affect the national team in the long run.
In the first three rounds of this year’s tournament, openside flankers have been thin on the ground, with the “fetcher” role being shared among the three loose forwards and, sometimes, the hookers or whichever backline players don’t mind poking their heads into the ruck furnace.
Looking at the not-so-distant past, the basic roles of the loose trio were devolved as follows: the openside flank played to the ball, the blindside flank generated momentum, be it in defence or attack, and the eighth man was the link and therefore the distributor between backs and forwards.
But according to Cheetahs head coach and Bok assistant coach Franco Smith, whose usual loose forward combination is Uzair Cassiem, Oupa Mohoje and Paul Schoeman – none of whom is a specialist fetcher – the game has developed beyond that.
“I can’t speak on behalf of everybody, but I believe every flank and every eighth man must have the same ability in terms of stealing the ball, slowing down and speeding up rucks,” he said.
“Why have one guy when you can have three doing the same job? Obviously, they are better at certain things than others, but it’s about up-skilling and getting guys to practise doing everything.
“I believe in giving the players the capabilities to do all of that without overcommitting to the breakdown.
"That way, you don’t have to have one guy chasing after breakdowns...you can have three at different spots on the field still contesting and slowing it down.”
Wasn't risk worth taking
Meyer – whose first act as Springbok coach in 2012 was snubbing South Africa’s best openside at the time, Heinrich Brüssow – has said he had made a mistake by not picking Brüssow because he had come from a background of coaching Super Rugby, where fetchers had become less critical to teams succeeding.
“Because the laws kept on changing, the openside flankers were attracting the referees’ attention because the laws were in favour of the attacking side,” he said.
“Everybody wanted to see good rugby and that meant quick ball, so the referees were looking to penalise the fetchers, who slowed things down as a result.
“I don’t think Super Rugby has always had a fair contest for the ball. So when I started with the Boks, I looked at an openside’s steals versus the penalties conceded, and I thought it [selecting a fetcher] wasn’t a risk worth taking.”
But the catch was what happened in international rugby: “I hadn’t realised that 80% of our games would be refereed by refs from the northern hemisphere. If you look at most of the games we lost, they were refereed by French referees, who just let rucks become a free-for-all.
“That’s when you need a specialist openside flanker to get you quick ball in attack, and that’s why I recruited [breakdown specialist coach] Richie Gray.”
Meyer also feels that people misunderstand the fetcher’s responsibilities on the field.
“An openside is the first guy to a breakdown; he is the main defender around the ruck; and responsible for generating quick ball and slowing the opposition’s ball down. People only want to look at steals and tick that box, but it’s not the most important thing.
“He needs to hit every third ruck. People like to follow New Zealand, but they don’t understand that [retired former All Blacks captain] Richie McCaw played to the ball.”
Meyer also aired his concerns about South Africa’s approach to the breakdown.
Out of the game
“When you talk breakdown with coaches, they think you’re talking physicality. That’s why our Super Rugby sides hardly ever get quick ball and have the worst technique at ruck time.
“As a nation, we’ve fallen behind with our technique at the breakdown. This is because you don’t get openside flankers from schoolboy rugby because the referees nail them at that level.
"That’s why I had to turn [Bulls openside] Roelof Smit from an eight into an openside. We just don’t have the skills.”
Meyer added that simply copying what New Zealand was doing wasn’t the answer: “The All Blacks like to leave a loosie like Kieran Read in the wide channels. Here, we do it with openside flankers, which takes them out of the game.
“New Zealand have really good opensides, but they can strike a balance in how they do their work because they are left to roam and decide when to strike.”