Boks must play brain game

South Africa will not win the 2009 Tri-Nations if they adopt the high-risk approach that saw them self-destruct in 2008, writes Gavin Rich in SA Rugby magazine.

brain gameThe standing of the Tri-Nations as the world’s premier international rugby competition, and the challenges faced by the competing teams, was neatly summed up in an interview that former British & Irish Lions great Gareth Edwards did with a London newspaper.

Edwards, rated the greatest rugby player of last century, travelled to Cape Town for a Tri-Nations game in 2005 – and the brutality of it left him feeling quite stunned.

‘After the bashing the Lions received in 2005 I travelled together with the Cardiff chief executive Bob Norster to watch the All Blacks take on the Springboks,’ recalled Edwards. ‘We had left New Zealand after the Lions tour thinking that the All Blacks were the greatest team on Earth and we wondered who was ever going to beat them. Well, in Cape Town that day the Springboks knocked lumps off them. To say the Boks lacked skill would be an injustice, but the Boks really walloped them. Tana Umaga was knocked off his feet, Dan Carter did not know what day it was. To be there in the flesh was almost frightening. I can’t see a British team doing that too often.’

In relating his experience of that Newlands match, Edwards was also pointing to the one element of Springbok rugby that has remained such a key to their challenge throughout the 88 years of fierce rivalry between these powerful rugby nations. In a word: physicality.

To say it was missing from the games between the Boks and the All Blacks in last year’s Tri-Nations would not be accurate. At stages of the tournament the Boks were as physical as ever, and they scored a historic win in Dunedin playing a structured, aggressive game that could have been right out of Jake White’s playbook.

However, those were the days when new coach Peter de Villiers was giving a lot of air to his love of the expansive game. The net result was that, as they did many times during the course of the year, the Boks flitted between playing styles – and they didn’t play to their core strength. Yes, they were physical in all their games against the All Blacks, but they weren’t nearly as direct as they needed to be when the two sides clashed in Cape Town.

For reasons only known to themselves, or to their coach, the Boks took onto the field that day a strategy that could only be described as suicide. Instead of setting play up through the forwards and creating a platform by hitting the advantage line, the Boks ran the ball down the back – and their run-from-everywhere approach copped them an embarrassing 19-0 defeat.

That was the lowlight of the season, but the malaise had set in during the previous match in Perth. Just a week after their epic win in Dunedin, the Boks started as favourites against a Wallabies team playing for the first time in a Tri-Nations match under new coach Robbie Deans.

Instead of taking the good from Dunedin into this game, the Boks abandoned the template. De Villiers telegraphed his intentions to run more by bringing back Conrad Jantjes for Percy Montgomery, who had been steadiness personified at Carisbrook.

Instead of playing the structured rugby that had earned them their first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil since 1998, the Boks embarked on the policy that ran them into a blind corner at Newlands. The Wallabies had started tentatively, but the Boks allowed them off the hook by playing away from the South African traditional strengths.

‘To me the big disappointment of last year was not so much that we finished last on the Tri-Nations log, but that we finished the New Zealand leg with one win each, and yet we did not build on that platform,’ admits Bok assistant coach Gary Gold.

One former Bok who watched the world champions getting handed a rugby lesson during their penultimate Tri-Nations match in Durban was Mark Andrews. That was the day when the Boks were booed from the field afterwards, and were booed again by patrons in the King’s Park parking area as their bus left the stadium.

‘When I spoke to some of the people involved, such as [assistant coach] Dick Muir, it was stressed that it wasn’t supposed to be as disorganised as it appeared, the players did go onto the field with structure in mind,’ says Andrews. ‘But it was evident to me that if there was a structure, the players didn’t understand that structure and were battling to get to grips with it. You could make that out when someone like [lock] Andries Bekker ended up taking three balls at flyhalf. The players simply didn’t appear to know where the play was going.’

This makes sense, for De Villiers used to talk the heads-up approach, with the Bok mantra being ‘we’ll play what‘s in front of us’. There have been some high-ranking coaches down the years who have believed in this policy, but can you tally those who have been consistently successful, and more particularly, won trophies? I thought not.

‘You don’t want to be too rigid in your structure, but in my years as a Bok we always seemed to struggle when we had coaches who took on board a philosophy that moved away from structure. I am thinking parts of the Harry Viljoen era, and Carel du Plessis,’ recalls Andrews. ‘In the successful years, such as in 1995 when we won the World Cup and in 1998 when we won the Tri-Nations, we built our success around the physicality and dominance of our forwards. We took on strategies that would ensure that our bigger forwards would always be on the front foot, and we would set up our play through the pack.

‘Last year, in those early Tri-Nations games, we looked like we were trying to set up play through our backs, from behind the advantage line, something that has never worked for the Boks. When we feed the backs we need to be at the gainline or across it. We need to have the opposing defences back on their heels,  and bring the forwards in behind, with the ball in front of them.’

For Andrews, as well as another former Bok in Brendan Venter, the selection of the squad will be the key to the chances of South African success in this year’s Tri-Nations.

‘You have to have the players that will suit the game, and vice versa,’ says Andrews.

Venter explains what is needed by holding out one hand and then letting his second fall into place on top of it, all the fingers interlinking.

‘You can’t go out and play a certain type of game if you don’t have the players to do it, or the skill levels required, or if the players are just not used to it,’ says Venter. ‘Everything has to fit together. The combinations have to fit one another, the game plan has to suit the combinations you have and the individual players you have. There are reasons why South African teams tend to be more successful when they adopt a more direct approach, but we keep making the mistake of moving away from this.’

Last year there were some oddities in selection. And even when the right selection was made, there were times when the game plan didn’t appear to suit the player selected.

An excellent example of this was the aforementioned Newlands match. When Fourie du Preez was recalled ahead of Ricky Januarie at scrumhalf it was assumed that the Boks would use his gifted kicking boot to play the territory game. As one official said on the eve of that game, ‘When you pick a guy who can kick from his team’s own 22 to the opposition 22 and he is a scrumhalf, it would be idiotic not to use him to do that.’

Yet the Boks hardly kicked in that game. They ran from everywhere, were repeatedly caught in their own half, and although the player could hardly be blamed, as by then the Boks were forced into playing catch-up, the try that the New Zealanders scored when Jean de Villiers passed to one of them near the Bok line summed up the match.

Du Preez did not look comfortable playing that game, and the Boks, particularly Butch James, were far more effective when they returned to traditional strengths against the Wallabies in the final match. Unfortunately, by then all the pretty birds had flown, and the Boks were playing only for pride.

‘I was encouraged by the fact that after the Durban game against Australia we did seem to return to proper Test rugby, so maybe the penny dropped. I certainly hope so,’ says Andrews. ‘The three matches on the end-of-year tour were encouraging, so hopefully we will stick to that. If we don’t, we could be in as much trouble in this Tri-Nations as we were last year. The one big potential problem that is easy to pinpoint is goal kicking. Like it or not, Test rugby is about kicking your goals, and we don’t have an 80% kicker like we did when we had Percy [Montgomery] playing.

‘I would also like to see the Boks make greater use of the drop goal as a source of keeping the scoreboard ticking. On our home grounds the firm surfaces encourage drop kicking. For a forward who has been throwing everything into defending, there is nothing more demoralising than the opposition sticking over a drop. I have a good recollection of the England faces when Jannie de Beer did it to them in the 1999 World Cup.’

Even if the Boks do bring the structure and levelness to their game that was missing last season, they may find themselves up against better opposition than they encountered in 2008. The Wallabies have lost lock Dan Vickerman, flank Rocky Elsom and Mark Gerrard since last year’s Tri-Nations, but this will be their second year with Deans as coach.

The big question mark over the All Blacks centres on Dan Carter. The ace flyhalf – such a key player in that Cape Town victory last year and the crucial element in New Zealand’s switch to more pragmatic rugby halfway through last season – is unlikely to play.

While the bulk of last year’s players will be back, and there hasn’t been quite the same loss of personnel to the north as there was immediately after the World Cup, Carter was, with skipper Richie McCaw, one of the few really special players in the All Blacks’ line-up. Without him they might lose a bit more of the aura that they appeared to be missing before the Boks and Wallabies let them off the hook at the start of the last Tri-Nations.

SAR147 coverThe Boks will have to hit the tournament running this year, as the home leg comes first. They will require a minimum of two wins from their matches in Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town if they are to be competitive when the show moves to Australasia, where Perth, Brisbane and Hamilton are their ports of call.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine.