Pragmatism must take precedence over panache if the Springboks hope to have a successful Tri-Nations campaign.
In the 2008 Tri-Nations the Springboks made the grave error of showing a distinct lack of appreciation for the fundamentals of the game and their strengths at times. They didn’t earn the right to play expansively – to borrow Sharks coach John Plumtree’s philosophy – by setting a platform through forward dominance at set phases and in general play.
Panache, or an ugly attempt thereat, preceded pragmatism, when it should have been the other way around.
In a year when the Wallabies are still fielding fairly new combinations in key positions and getting a handle coach Robbie Deans’ playing philosophy, one in which the All Blacks look more vulnerable than they have in recent history, and one in which the schedule has served to amplify the expectations on the Springboks, they must not butcher an excellent shot at the title by displaying the tactical naivety that marked the defeats in their 2009 campaign. That begins with 80 solid minutes in Bloemfontein against the All Blacks on Saturday.
For 50 minutes against the British & Irish Lions in the first Test they were untouchable. They played a brand of rugby that suited their strengths, while the Lions failed in their attempts to break them down with a multi-phase approach. Eddie Jones, who acted as a consultant to the World Cup winning Springboks in 2007 and coached Australia to the 2003 World Cup final, would later tell me that the Springboks only get better the more phases they are made to defend through.
Those 50 minutes (before perplexing substitutions allowed the Lions to almost overturn a 19-point deficit), and indeed their clinical performance against Australia at Ellis Park in the Tri-Nations and the demolition of England at Twickenham is the model which every Springbok game plan should be based on. Proponents of an expansive approach felt vindicated after those matches. The reality, however, was that there was infinitely more of the pragmatic and structured than there was the expansive and cavalier in those performances.
Critics of this approach would believe it would make the Springboks predictable and consequently, increasingly beatable. However, the counter would be to cite the Bulls, who haven’t changed their playing philosophy, which centres on the utilisation of their strengths (their forwards) in a number of years. It’s been a profitable approach as they’ve captured the Super 14 title twice in the last three years, as well as three Currie Cup titles.
Yes they’ve adapted certain aspects of their approach to exploit their opposition’s weaknesses and nullify their strengths, but haven’t strayed from a winning formula that stresses pragmatism before panache.
The difficulty in replicating that approach is that in recent years the Bulls have had a flyhalf who was comfortable to slip into the pocket and dictate the game with his boot, Derick Hougaard and Morne Steyn being prime examples, where incumbent Springbok pivot Ruan Pienaar is stronger when taking the ball flat to the line and running at defenders. His tactical kicking has improved markedly since he started playing flyhalf at Test level, but he still isn’t seen as a 10 who is able to dictate the course of a Test match with his boot.
Debating whether Morne Steyn is a better option is futile because coach Peter de Villiers is unlikely to drop Pienaar. He sees his game-breaking ability as a major asset, and he seems a perfect fit for De Villiers’ romantic idea of how the Springboks should play.
The focus should therefore be on developing that facet of Pienaar’s game through repetition and application. Steyn, whose coaches confirm couldn’t kick either tactically or at goal as a youngster at the Bulls, was taught to, proving that it is not an innate skill, but one that can be learnt, and in Steyn’s case perfected.
However, scrumhalf Fourie du Preez’s excellent kicking game takes pressure off Pienaar, and with that halfback pair, and Frans Steyn at fullback, the Springboks are equipped to play a territorial game.
In addition, with specialist openside flank Heinrich Brüssow in the run-on side, the Springboks are better prepared than they were last season to blunt the All Blacks at the breakdown should they opt to play expansively. Brüssow, assisted by the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, will slow their recycle, and in so doing allow the defensive line to reset, making their defensive task considerably easier.
Let pragmatism rule in Bloemfontein and thereafter, but let us make the mistake of associating pragmatism with conservatism.
It is the intelligent approach when taking into account the strengths of the players at their disposal. And playing to your strengths must never be confused with playing conservatively.
By Ryan Vrede