It’s all in the pass

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes with the greatest of respect to the attacking capabilities of Lions centre Jaco Pretorius, my grandmother, were she still with us, could have left Ellis Park having scored a hattrick of tries against Western Province.

The architect of Pretorius’s hattrick was the other Pretorius playing on his inside. The construction was in the pass of the Lions and Bok flyhalf, which beat the midfield defence.

In the case of Pretorius, the midfielder, he simply had to run straight and fast and trust his hands to take the pass. Yet Pretorius, the midfielder, was named man of the match when none of the tries would have been possible had it not been for the ability of Andre Pretorius, the flyhalf.

It was an indictment of everything that is wrong with the way rugby in this country is analysed. There is no respect for the passer of the ball and there is seldom acknowledgement for the value of a decision-maker who can actually pass.

Another example was in the Sharks visit to Bloemfontein. Francois Steyn is very talented, kicks well and has the ability to beat a defender with an inside step. But he is no Brent Russell when it comes to making a pass or beating the defender on his outside.

To illustrate the point you only have to study the last three minutes of the match when the Sharks attacked the Cheetahs tryline. Three times Steyn got the ball in succession and three times he tried to step inside the defender to beat the defence. Three times he got smashed back. It was only when Russell took the ball at first receiver and created the space and width with his pass did the Sharks get the necessary momentum for the try.

Russell has done it so often, but not often enough because he is so seldom played at flyhalf. When the Boks relied on a last minute Louis Koen penalty to beat the Pumas in 2003, all hailed the need for a kicker. It was nonsense. Koen had received 10 attacking passes close to the Pumas line but he could make no impact. The first time Russell, on as a replacement, got the ball he walked around the defender and scored under the posts. He had the pace over the first five metres to beat the defence, much like he did against Australia in 2002 when the Boks scored five tries to three and won the test with Russell playing at flyhalf.

Russell since has never started at flyhalf for the Boks and the Boks have never scored five tries against Australia in a test again.

Jean de Villiers is rated as one of the best midfielders by his international peers because he is one of select few in this country who can actually pass the ball. I watched a recording of the Bulls’ emphatic win against Griquas and on at least three occasions the monster midfielder Dries Scholtz broke the first tackle but the moment he got slowed down by the second defender he was clueless in getting his pass away. He coughed up one certain try because he lacked the basic skill of passing.

Scholtz was being spoken of as a Springbok a couple of years ago because of his size, but we let Stuart Abbott go to England because he was not big enough. But Abbott could pass and he could attack space. Abbott these days has a 2003 World Cup medal and is considered the best midfielder in the English game. He has skill and he should be playing in South Africa, but he was judged on his weight and not his ability to make a pass.

The obsession with size and the lack of obsession with skill extends even further among our backs. For a decade there has been criticism of Breyton Paulse’s lack of size being a problem. His ability to pass and to beat defenders with his skill has always been secondary to every international coach who has dropped him since he made his test debut.

The same doubts are now being expressed about Gio Aplon, but not nearly enough focus has been on his attacking and passing skills.

Defence, it is often argued, puts you in a position to win World Cups, but the ability to beat structured defence through a pass is more definitive.

We have the passers in this country. What doesn’t come that easy is actually selecting them for the Springboks.