Kicking key to total rugby

Let’s hope Peter de Villiers is playing mind games with Ian McGeechan. Let’s hope his dismissal of the kicking game as ‘only one area’ is something of a bluff.

Tactical kicking has always been important on the highveld. Ask the Bulls, who’ve built their entire Super 14 campaign on the kicking prowess of Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn and Zane Kirchner.

The hallfback pair and fullback got the better of New Zealand opposition in both play-off matches which allowed the Bully Boys the freedom to play an exciting brand. No running from their own line, no risk-taking rugby. It was clinical and it was smart, and it showed how clinical and smart could lead to an exciting brand.

Tactical kicking is going to be so crucial in the coming Test series. McGeechan acknowledged it, his assistant coaches acknowledged it and the Lions’ players themselves have talked about the importance of kicking at altitude. On Monday, De Villiers undermined the lot of them when he said it’s ‘just one area of the game’.

No Peter. It’s not just one area of the game. It’s one of the most crucial areas of the game. And if you don’t believe Geech and co, speak to your own Super 14 coaches. All five of them have harped on about it since January.

Teams with good kickers at 9, 10 and 15 are often in the pound seats. The Boks are fortunate to have the best scrumhalf in the world in Fourie du Preez, and Ruan Pienaar, in form, is a capable kicker. Fullback remains the final piece of the puzzle, and this is where the Bok selectors need to be clever.

The omission of Zane Kirchner from the Test squad is inexplicable. He was the form South African fullback in the Super 14. He offered everything a coach could want. His positional play was good, his line kicking exemplary, his defence reliable and his attacking ability underrated. Including Kirchner, a specialist fullback, would of made sense.

But De Villiers has spoken about moving JP Pietersen to fullback, a position he hasn’t played since 2006. He’s spoken of moving Jaque Fourie back to 15, a position he hasn’t played since 2006. Why would you move a top-class winger and a top-class centre out of position just because you are short on first-choice options?

And that’s just the thing, the Boks aren’t short on options. Percy Montgomery may have retired and Conrad Jantjes may be out for the year with injury, but Kirchner should have been in the mix.

Frans Steyn could also be an option with his big boot, but that’s where the list should end. Leave Pienaar at flyhalf and don’t talk about him in fullback terms. Not when you have the quality of Kirchner and Steyn available. Morne Steyn should also not be forced to play a position he’s unaccustomed to. It’s completely unnecessary.

Earl Rose was better when he moved from fullback to flyhalf in last Friday’s match against a Namibian XV. At 15, he’s inconsistent and unreliable, two qualities atypical of a top-flight fullback. People talk about his perceived X-factor, but this does not compensate for his disregard for the basics.

The Bulls played total rugby this season. By total rugby, they embraced every dimension of the game. Their forwards were clinical and relentlessly belligerent, and their backs showed a remarkable ability to capitalise on this platform. Frans Ludeke’s backline varied their play cleverly and this is what made them so dangerous. The same was true of Heyneke Meyer’s backline in 2007.

Let’s hope this is what De Villiers really means by total rugby. The Bulls showed the way in the Super 14 just as the Sharks showed the way in the 2008 Currie Cup. The Boks were at their best against Australia and England last year when they embraced this approach. At Ellis Park, the conservative start resulted in a 53-8 win to the Boks. A similar approach resulted in a record victory over England at Twickenham.

Tactical kicking is paramount to success. The Boks are rightly favourites to whitewash the Lions, but it’s arrogance to assume they don’t need to earn those three wins. The 2008 victories at Ellis Park and Twickenham were systematic demolitions and that approach should be used as the blueprint for the coming series. Anything else would open the Boks up to the most embarrassing failure.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg