Speed at heart of attacking ails

JON CARDINELLI looks at how a shift in conditioning focus could revolutionise the Springboks’ attack.

The Boks’ mighty reputation is built on brute strength rather than finesse. It was South Africa’s uncompromising physicality and pinpoint tactical kicking that earned them the Super 14, Lions series and Tri-Nations trophies in 2009. Some claim they don’t have the personnel for a running game, but you have to wonder whether a faulty system and archaic mindset has failed a generation of potential attacking stars.

The All Blacks and Wallabies fear the Boks’ physicality, but you’ll never catch them talking up the South African attack. The Australasians were outplayed in 2009, but 2010 has witnessed a turnaround. Their ability to match the Boks at the collisions has left the South Africans with no Plan B. If they can’t outbully the opposition, their attack falls flat.

An impeccable source has revealed that poor conditioning is at the heart of South Africa’s plight. As simple as it sounds, we don’t coach our players to run properly.

Independent tests done in 2006 and 2007 before the World Cup highlighted the fact. It was found that the speed element of conditioning was lacking. Adjustments were made and the players benefited from the changes at the global tournament.

After the World Cup, however, players like Bryan Habana regressed. The conditioning standards set under Jake White and his extensive team of experts were not maintained. The specific knowledge and methodology died with White’s resignation and the disbanding of his management team. As a result, the Boks did not evolve.

Habana admitted to not using Sherylle Calder’s visual training exercises post-the World Cup, and admitted that it affected his performance. He wasn’t the only player to suffer, and visual skills weren’t the only standards to drop after 2007. The fact that these exercises were no longer part of Bok training contributed to the regression.

There’s a specific speed conditioning system called XLR8 which has been in place in New Zealand for 20 years. Because of Robbie Deans’s move across the Tasman, it is now used in Australia. It’s also used by the All Blacks as well as top Kiwi franchises like the Crusaders and Hurricanes.

There’s a saying in New Zealand that some live by what they know, and some live to know more. South African sport falls into the former category, and this is why even the Australians are outshining the Boks at the moment.

It seems the Boks are spending too much time in the gym and not enough on the field. The Boks spend too much time improving their strength when they should be training to use that strength in true game situations. A team like the Crusaders spends 90% of its time allotted for conditioning on the field, and only 10% of that time in the gym.

The Aussies have made great progress under Deans. You just have to look at how they’ve caught up to the All Blacks in terms of their speed and physique. They’re trained to move laterally in the tackle – some commentators don’t see the slight variation of direction, and believe ‘good stepping’ leads to a broken tackle – and what happens? Bok defenders are left grasping at air. According to my source, it’s about the way they’re trained to run and the rotation of the hips. Australasians are conditioned to step off both legs.

Speed conditioning is seen as a priority in Australasia while an emphasis is placed on strength in South Africa. The Boks should be looking at ways to train their players for specific situations, rather than spend more time in the gym trying to bench 300kg. Needless to say, there’s no opportunity for weightlifting on the playing field.

Not all the blame can be laid at the current management’s door. South Africa needs to rethink the way it conditions their players at every level, implementing a system that can be used across all franchises and provinces to ensure players are properly conditioned by the time they get to Test rugby. The Bok conditioning staff don’t train players when they arrive in the national camp, but rather manage injuries and ensure certain standards are maintained.

I stand by the Boks’ current tactics and that their recent defeats are down to faulty application, but rethinking the conditioning system will have multiple benefits. At present, the Boks are only effective when they implement one brand of rugby, and when it fails, they have no Plan B. Backing a new system could ensure the Boks develop an attacking edge to match that of the All Blacks and Wallabies. It South African rugby opens its mind, this dream could become a reality.

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