Failure to fire

Will South Africa’s Super 14 teams ever realise their attacking potential?

Rugby is a two-sided coin if you consider the way the game is played at either extreme of the spectrum. The ideal is simple but pure: you play to score. Tries are all that matter. There’s a level, however, that usually places prevention on a pedestal. ‘Defence wins World Cups’ is by now a classic adage that has been proved time and again. The most recent triumph by the Springboks is a particular case in point. Unfortunately, this victory overshadowed a patent truth that is most applicable to South African teams. Defence may win World Cups, but it is often not enough to beat off teams with attacking intentions.

This is most applicable in southern-hemisphere tournaments such as the Tri-Nations and the Super 14, and it has become even more pertinent under the Experimental Law Variations (ELVs). Great defence can take a team only so far, but great attack wins the Super 14.

The Bulls and the Sharks went against the grain in 2007 by racking up 45 and 41 tries respectively in the league stage. When the two teams contested the final, the match was won by a late try by Bryan Habana. This tournament was a significant step in the right direction. However, a look at the statistics after six rounds in 2008 confirms there has been little progress, and in some instances, regression.

After six rounds, the Cheetahs topped the South African try-scoring stakes with 14, followed by the Lions, the Sharks and the Stormers all on 10. The Bulls were bringing up the rear with only eight tries. Of these teams, the Stormers picked up two bonus points for scoring four tries against the Reds and the Chiefs respectively. The Sharks managed four tries against the Bulls in a 29-15 win, and the Cheetahs scored four despite a 50-26 hammering at the hands of the Blues.

Former Western Province coach Alan Zondagh, who currently heads his Rugby Performance Centre in Riebeeck West, is a strong advocate of attacking rugby. After watching the first half of this year’s Super 14, he believes the South African sides are victims of their own conservative structures.

‘You can change the rules as much as you like, but unless you change your attitude it is unlikely you will ever improve on attack,’ Zondagh says. ‘If we remain conservative, we are not going to progress. We have the players across all age groups to ensure we have the best team in the world for the next 50 to 100 years. If we would adopt a more attacking mindset we could be unstoppable.’

Comparisons are slated in some sectors, but they do illustrate a brutal point.

The pacesetters of the tournament, the Crusaders and the Blues, had scored 31 and 23 tries respectively by the end of round six. This means the two top teams in New Zealand had run in two more tries than the combined effort (52) of the five South African franchises.

Comparisons with the Kiwis are inevitable, but what is of concern is that most of the Australian sides run in more tries despite their lack of form and structure. The Reds were top of the Aussie pile with 18, followed by the Brumbies (17) and the Force (14). Only the Waratahs (12) had failed to score more tries than the most prolific South African outfit, which is, ironically, the bottom-dwelling Cheetahs.

Why can’t our players score more tries? And why are our teams always so static on attack?

‘The problem with these new rules is that the pace has increased but the players haven’t adjusted,’ remarks Zondagh. ‘The ball is coming out so quickly from the rucks that our players are often in the wrong position to receive the pass. In the past, when the ball arrived more slowly, there was more time to organise an attack. Now it seems as if players are just getting in each other’s way.

‘It takes a lot of discipline to drop back at that speed, and it’s certainly something we need to get used to. Some teams have already adjusted, but our teams are often guilty of bunching together.’

More statistics confirm the stasis that afflicts South African rugby. Consider the number of tries scored by each team after six rounds last year. The Blues (19) and Crusaders (16) were in the top two, followed closely by the Bulls (14) and the Hurricanes (13). Although the Bulls had scored six tries fewer in 2008, the Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks and Stormers had all progressed by slim margins.

The respective coaches would argue that progress, however gradual, has been made. Despite this, our top sides continue to plod along at snail’s pace while the New Zealand teams are moving at lightning speed in embracing changes to the game that could indeed see them become increasingly formidable.

This brings us to the ELVs that were introduced to speed up the game. More speed means more tries, which in turn means more entertainment. Few will argue that the Crusaders and the Blues have obliged on all three counts. Decision-making has become more emphasised, and it is here that our teams fall short on attack.

‘A lot of teams have kicked the ball away at the free kick, and I think that is down to inexperience of these new laws,’ says Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford. ‘If you look at a team like the Crusaders, they already know what they are going to do with each free kick and often look to move it around if they don’t take the scrum.’

The Sharks had to deal with some difficult handling conditions due to humidity in Durban in the early stages of the Super 14. This in turn prevented a more expansive approach, but the Sharks were still able to grind out some ugly wins.

Involved as he is with South Africa’s best bet for a play-off spot, Bashford spoke about a Sharks philosophy that more coaches need to embrace.

‘We always encourage players to play the situation,’ Bashford explains. ‘If it’s not on or there are no other options, then kicking for space may be the better choice. You have to be able to make these decisions on the spot. Decision-making has become all the more important. It really helps to have a few of those players in your team, and it doesn’t hurt for these players to be skilled kickers who can use the boot if required.’

Zondagh believes there is a misconception about attacking rugby as something confined to set plays and structured manoeuvres engineered to unlock the tightest defence. ‘That is only a very small part of it,’ he says. ‘It’s about an individual receiving the ball and reacting according to the situation. The players around him then have to be able to react to what he decides to do. You cannot always predict what’s going to happen.

‘When I coach young players, I encourage them, no matter what position they play, to create opportunities. You have to be creative when you have ball in hand. It can’t be a case of going through the motions and just hitting ruck after ruck thinking you are making progress.’

This is what Zondagh has seen at the highest level, and he believes it is poisonous to the greater rugby community. Young boys copy what they see on TV and grow up to make the same mistakes. It’s a vicious circle.

‘We have the players; we just need to use them correctly. It’s a high-risk game, but that’s the nature of sport. Look at the All Blacks. Forget that they haven’t won the World Cup in 20 years. They take chances and more often than not score more tries than the opposition. I watched a Super 14 match recently and one of our commentators pointed out that the Blues had made eight handling errors while one of our teams had only made two. The thing is, the Blues had already run in two tries and were continually creating opportunities.’

The fact that rugby is an 80-minute game has also been emphasised under the new laws. A team has to be able to maintain its intensity on attack right until the final whistle. This will be impossible if South African teams continue to expend all their energy on defence. Controlling possession and creating opportunities with the ball are the keys to emerging victorious after 80 minutes.

The Sharks bench played such a vital part in the franchise’s 2007 campaign. Bashford believes every group of reserves has gained new responsibility under the new laws.

‘With all the free kicks, the game has become faster and the ball is in play for longer periods. It’s almost like a game of chess where you have to manage your players carefully to ensure you maintain the intensity and pace for the full 80 minutes.’

Maximising a team’s attacking potential has always been rugby’s underlying mantra. When did this maxim lose prominence, and when did winning at all costs displace the true spirit of the game?

It’s easy enough to ignore when you’re winning, as South Africa realised in France last year. However, when you lose, it becomes more apparent how crucial style is to success. Our Super 14 teams are still learning the fact.

Many will claim that Super Rugby and Test rugby are entirely different beasts. However, if you really stop to consider the true aim of the game, you have to ask why it should be so.

By Jon Cardinelli

This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale Wednesday, 14 May.