In the last issue of SA Rugby magazine, Jake White explained why the Springboks must take their game to another level this season.
This is the season we add innovation to our play and consistency to our intensity. Winning all our home matches, as we did in 2004 and 2005, is a priority, but as a coaching staff, our season extends beyond wins, be it at home or overseas.
Weâ€™re into our third season as a squad, and what was a young international squad in 2004 is now mature and balanced. Weâ€™ve built a solid structure and, in the next 18 months, we have to decorate it with the necessary bells and whistles that win big games and the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup.
I have always been a believer that you canâ€™t plan to win World Cups. Instead, planning is about developing a squad strong enough to go to a World Cup believing they can win, instead of hoping for some sort of miracle.
We will work with a number of players in the early part of the season in order to develop the second-tier guys and ensure the core players donâ€™t hit the wall before we actually get to France in 2007.
Not all our preparation can be geared to the World Cup, because I understand the importance of winning consistently. A lot of the focus is on this season, but the bigger picture is the World Cup. This season is about winning as many as we can. Losing teams donâ€™t go to World Cups believing they can be successful. Weâ€™ve seen that often, and as a nation ourselves have experienced the best and worst World Cup scenarios.
The Boks of 2004 and 2005 had a winning habit and we have to ensure that the team selections are such that we pick teams that are balanced and not experimental.
We certainly wonâ€™t be selecting an A, B or C team in the Tests against Scotland and France, but I do aim to use the majority of the players at some stage during those three Tests.
This is an exciting season, but it can also be a dangerous one. In year three, the team should definitely show improvements in areas such as decision-making, intensity and all-round composure. The rough edges in the first year were not as rough in the second year, and they should be gone by year three. Thatâ€™s the theory, at least.
If you get it right, then year three becomes the most exciting; but if the practical does not match the theory, we would be in trouble. There is a general belief in the Springboks after the past two seasons, but, as I keep on reminding the squad, it is your form 18 months leading into a World Cup that determines World Cup success and not the results in the first 18 months post a World Cup.
Physically, I know the potential of our squad. Mentally, the answers arenâ€™t as obvious. New Zealanders have a wonderful saying that the difference between winning and losing the big games is in the top four inches, and this has to be the challenge to our players
in 2006. What will they take to each Test in those top four inches? Will they arrive with the necessary intensity and be willing to add the innovation I spoke about at the beginning?
Will they be capable of turning good into very good, and very good into great? As the coach of the side I believe they will, but only they know for sure. I am very mindful of player fatigue and the need to cleverly rotate players this season, if they are to arrive in France with their batteries fully charged. Bigger squads will become the norm, and the challenge for us, as management, is to manage the squads and ensure every player knows what his role is, what his game time exposure will be and what our expectation of this player is.
The schedule, as with every season, is tough but it is negotiable. Our season will again be judged by the Tri-Nations and the two Tests against England at Twickenham in November. I believe the key match in the Tri-Nations will be against Australia in Brisbane. They will have played England, and that will give us a decent yardstick of how good they will be under John Connolly. Perhaps good is not the right word and I should be saying we will see how differently they will play under Connolly.
Brisbane, though, will be a big game. Connolly is a Brisbane man, and the Wallabies traditionally have done very well at SunCorp Stadium. It is important for us to do well in Brisbane because we will take that momentum into the game at Wellington against the All Blacks the following week.
And if the team gets wins or even bonus points away from home, theyâ€™re well placed when playing the All Blacks at altitude twice.
As a coaching and management team, weâ€™ve been very active in our planning and research. Gert Smal spent time with Toulouse, as we have a high regard for their style of play, especially among their forwards. Clint Readhead, our physiotherapist, attended a conference in the United States, and we have also had discussions with the strength coaches at the Miami Dolphins.
The physicality of our players is our strength, but size alone does not get the wins and it is important we know how to maximise the strength. I know we have a very good pack that has the ability to dominate against any team, but it is also a forward unit that has to consistently be able to put the opposition under pressure. The same is applicable to our line-out, which can be brilliant but also malfunctioned at crucial times last year.
There will be lots of emphasis on our scrums and our mauling from line-outs. Counter-rucking, especially in northern hemisphere conditions, is a skill that is still underdeveloped in our squad. Our follow-through in contact also has to improve. There were too many occasions in the Super 14 when our players made the tackle, but stopped in the tackle. I want to see that leg drive in completing the action and legally taking that attacking player out of the game momentarily. When our players hit rucks, it has to be with precision and a plan that the defender cannot feature in the next move.
Defensively, weâ€™ve been strong in the last two seasons, although there has to be greater flexibility to take a couple of defensive strategies to a game, depending on who the opponent is. In 2004, we had all the surprise in the way we defended, who I picked and how we attacked. Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana, to name just two, were new to the scene. They are now established, and teams have had 18 months to work on a counter to them. As coaches, we have to add another string to their bow, be it with the way we use them or through a skill we can add to their repertoire.
Our decision-making was not good enough in the bigger matches last season, and we were certainly tested in key decision-making areas, such as halfback, when we lost Jaco van der Westhuyzen, AndrÃ© Pretorius, Ricky Januarie and Fourie du Preez to injury at the end of the year.
It is a skill to know when to take the contact, when to shift the pass and how to offload in the tackle. It is a skill that improves only through repetition at practice. When I talk about improving our offloading in the tackle, I donâ€™t mean thatâ€™s the first option every time; it has to be dependent on the match situation and on the immediate circumstance. The player has to have the confidence to offload in the tackle a metre from his tryline because that is what will create the extra second on a counterattack. Similarly, a player may have to take the contact and go to ground a metre from the opposition goal line. The next player has to know what his role is in each circumstance, be it cleaning at the ruck, being the support runner on the inside to give the decision-maker options or being the decoy runner.
Our execution in all these areas should be better by virtue of the time the squad has spent together. The core of the squad will be those who played in 2004 and 2005, and new faces will be introduced strategically to add depth to positions and give us game-plan options.
Player experience will be our greatest strength at the World Cup. A study of the successful World Cup sides shows that they were never the youngest sides at the tournament. It is no coincidence that the two that played the final in 2003 were also the most experienced in Test caps and in time spent together as a unit.
I will never overlook a superb talent, regardless of how young he is, but I have also learnt in 20 years of coaching that experience canâ€™t be fast-tracked and the guy with 50 Test caps is an advantage to any squad, providing he is playing well.
One of the coaching staffâ€™s goals in 2004 was to guide a young and inexperienced side that could grow and win enough so that theyâ€™d select themselves in 2006. I believe we achieved this goal. The next level is for this experienced team to start dominating in years three and four.
We were competitive in 2004 and 2005, but we were not consistent enough to be No 1. It has to be our goal to go to the World Cup leading the pack and not being part of a chasing pack.
How do we do this? We add poise and maturity to our game, and we start attacking with the confidence and intensity we show on defence. How do we achieve this? Through bloody hard work on the practice field and with a clear idea of what the player and squad objectives are for each session and each match.
By Jake White