A week that for some probably feels more like a year is coming to an end and the reality that an imminent resumption of Super Rugby is becoming highly unlikely is surely hitting home at all the franchises, but that doesn’t mean the respective coaches can’t use this time to think.
What chance the franchise coaches have to recalibrate their templates will depend on when the tournament resumes and what warning they get before that resumption. Right now, no full team training is possible because of the requirements put in place by health authorities, endorsed by the rugby unions, to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Players are working on their conditioning and on individual skills, but when it comes to group training, that can be done only in pods of five or fewer players. And at this point you’d assume that the social distancing protocols stipulate minimum contact.
So actually getting out on the grass and practicing an amended game plan is impossible right now. When it might become possible would be if the Sanzaar authorities, assured that the Covid-19 pandemic has been controlled in the territories under their jurisdiction and if given the all-clear for sport to be played by the governments of those countries, announce that rugby will resume three or four weeks in the future.
If that is the case, then the squads can possibly squeeze in a little mini pre-season. There won’t be enough time to completely overhaul any team’s game, but quantum changes could be made that could make all the difference to how those teams fare once they get back into action.
RUGBY ROCKET SCIENCE NOT REQUIRED TO FIGURE IT OUT
It doesn’t require a rugby rocket scientist to figure out that the local team that the others should be learning from right now is the Sharks. Stormers coach John Dobson has a valid argument when he points to the injuries his team has suffered, and losing five World Cup winners would impact negatively on any team.
At the same time though, it is undeniable that it has been the Sharks who have played the smartest rugby. Those romantics who feel that ball in hand rugby is everything should perhaps close their eyes now, but they’ve been smart because they’ve realised a well thought out, clever and accurate kicking strategy is the gold dust of modern rugby strategy.
Cape rugby people who wish to defend the Stormers’ decision to go with a strong forward-based strategy into this season are fond of pointing out that the only South African franchise to have achieved Super Rugby success was the Bulls. They won three trophies between 2007 and 2010 and they had legendary World Cup-winning forwards such as Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha playing for them.
The contention though that the Bulls success was built around forward supremacy though is bollocks. The Bulls would not have come anywhere near any trophy were it not for the fact that they had the best scrumhalf in the world, and certainly, the best kicking halfback of his era, orchestrating matters. Of course, the reference is to Fourie du Preez.
With Du Preez there to help him, Morne Steyn was able to thrive in 2009 and 2010, and in 2007 it was Derick Hougaard, but we’ve almost forgotten that because it was the play of Du Preez that we remember.
The criticism levelled at the Bulls for being a dour, conservative team was possibly accurate in 2007. The Sharks, coached by Dick Muir, should really have won Super Rugby that year. But there was nothing dull about the Bulls in their later incarnation, when Frans Ludeke was the coach but Du Preez and Matfield were directing proceedings at Loftus. Watch videos of their games before arguing against the line that they had a pretty complete game-plan.
The Sharks went into Super Rugby this year having lost a phalanx of influential forwards. Many, including this writer, felt that would make them also-rans.
It felt like Sean Everitt was on the right track when he spoke of attacking the breakdowns and using turn-over ball to bring in the skilled and pacy Bok World Cup winners the Sharks had out wide, but it was felt this would be a year of process for the Sharks. A mid-table finish with signs that the new game was catching on was seen as their best hope.
A LESSON WAS LEARNT IN EVERITT’S DISASTROUS FIRST GAME
That it hasn’t turned out that way might well be sourced in what the Sharks learnt from their opening game of the 2019 Currie Cup campaign, the first game where Everitt was in charge after taking over from Robert du Preez. Everitt had only had the players for two weeks, his elevation took him by surprise and understandably he wasn’t as prepared as he’d have liked to be.
But he was determined to move his team away from the forward, physical-based strategy that his predecessor had followed and perhaps in those early weeks he over-corrected by basing too much around ball in hand rugby. The first game the Sharks played was against Griquas in Durban and Everitt promised the King’s Park faithful they’d see a new Sharks game.
But it rained on Everitt’s first night in charge and the Sharks’ inability to adapt to the conditions cost them. The ease with which Griquas outplayed their opponents by just implementing a good kicking strategy was embarrassing to the hosts. The Sharks lost because they ran everything while Griquas kicked everything.
Of course, there is more to it than that. Just kicking doesn’t win rugby matches. You need to be clever about it, you need to have good chasers. Implemented properly, a kicking strategy doesn’t chase fans away.
The Highlanders won Super Rugby in 2015 with their kicking game more than anything else and you’d struggle to find anyone in Dunedin who felt they didn’t play attractive rugby along the way. Ditto the Crusaders, and it is common knowledge that while the All Blacks are renowned as a running team, they kick the ball a lot more than is thought.
MASTERMIND OF SHARKS DEFEAT NOW WORKING WITH THEM
Whether it was on that night last July when he suffered such a humiliating introduction to being a top-level coach that the penny dropped for Everitt is a moot point. Maybe it was the new Sharks chief executive Eduard Coetzee who saw the light first. Whatever it was, negotiations were quickly started with the Griquas coach Brent Janse van Rensburg, and the upshot has been that the mastermind of that Sharks defeat is now working with the Sharks.
Suggesting that he has had a big role to play is not to undermine Everitt. The most memorable Sharks, or Natal as they were then, rugby achievement came about because the then coach Ian McIntosh was prepared to learn from others - Rod MacQueen when it came to his direct rugby approach, Tom Lawton when it came to the scrums, and there were others who had an influence.
So far, from the outside at least, and on the evidence of what we are seeing each weekend, Everitt and Janse van Rensburg have worked together seamlessly. They’ve complemented each other’s strengths, and Everitt has not been shy to credit his fellow coaches, as he did last weekend after his team beat the Stormers.
STORMERS MAY HAVE NEGLECTED KEY ASPECT OF RASSIE’S PLAN
The Stormers can learn from the Sharks in the sense that it sometimes appears that their kicking game is an after-thought. They adopted the Bok World Cup-winning template at the start of the season but appeared to overlook the fact that kicking was so obviously a massive part of Rassie Erasmus’ World Cup-winning strategy.
The Bulls can learn from the Sharks in how an effective kicking strategy can be implemented. Up until recently, they had veteran Morne Steyn driving their game, but it appeared they based the strategy more around territory than what the Sharks were doing, which was using contestable kicks as their attack platform.
LIONS MISS THE OTHER JANSE VAN RENSBURG
What can the Lions do? For the Johannesburg union it might not be a case of needing to adjust their strategy, but acquiring different personnel. Willem Alberts has been employed recently to try and fill the gap left by the absence of big ball carriers to take the ball across the gain-line but he is pretty much alone.
There are, of course, several players the Lions have lost from the group that took them to three successive Super Rugby finals, but perhaps the one they miss the most of all is their former hulking, bullocking inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg. It was Van Rensburg who provided so much of the go-forward for the Lions in those years and he helped the forwards look good.
Andre Esterhuizen does that for the Sharks and as he is heading overseas at the end of the season, there is a big gap to be filled at the Durban union. Providing the Sharks do get to play before he does leave, that is not a problem they need to think about now. Their game strategy is working, and it is why they top both the South African conference and the combined log.
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