Endangered species

ZELIM NEL, in SA Rugby magazine, examines how the new law interpretations have reduced the impact of fetchers at the breakdown.

A decade after possession-pilfering openside flankers exploded on to the professional scene, the pursuit of a different kind of turnover appears to be chasing fetchers to the brink of extinction. Short wheelbase fetchers are inadvertently being phased out of rugby by administrators who believe it is far easier to sell a game that celebrates fleet-footed try-scorers than one dominated by stubborn defence.

The objective of the law interpretations introduced at the beginning of the season was to promote a high-scoring game by making it increasingly difficult for defenders to halt the attacking team’s progress.

This new focus by the referees has effectively prohibited the tackler from retrieving possession, given that he must first release the carrier once grounded, regain his feet, and then ‘show clear daylight’ between himself and the downed runner, before having a go at the ball. And all of this before the first cleaner arrives to create a ruck. It’s a checklist that would have had Neil Armstrong squinting at the Apollo 11 console.

Western Province senior professional coach and former Springbok flanker Rassie Erasmus agrees that the need for specialist fetchers is consequently waning.

‘A guy who can only clean and steal the ball has become less important in a team than he was perhaps two years ago.’

Fetchers didn’t even exist until after rugby turned professional 14 years ago.

‘When I was playing for Free State in the mid-90s, we didn’t have a specific guy to fetch,’ says Erasmus, who played 36 Tests for the Boks between 1997 and 2001. ‘The perfect loose trio was one that played to the ball. And by that I don’t mean that they fetched the ball, I mean that they were there as the first cleaners on attack, and there to make the first tackle on defence.’

That’s how former Bok captain Corné Krige remembers it too.

‘In those days, creating a turnover was a collective effort to drive over the ball. You had to bind on to your team-mates and hit the ruck as a unit, and then try to blow over the ball. Most of the time the idea was not to commit to the ruck, but rather just to get back to your feet and fan out to make a defensive line.’

The Paarl Boys loose forward started at the back of the scrum but his Jack Russell compulsion to follow the ball soon saw him redeployed to the openside flank.

‘At school I played No 8 and I never fell back to catch the long kicks,’ says Krige with a laugh. ‘I was always playing to the ball because playing fetcher was a natural style for me. I’d run straight to the first breakdown, and then the next one and so on. That’s probably why they changed me to openside at U21 level.’

Krige played 39 Tests between 1999 and 2003 and was arguably South Africa’s first out-and-out fetcher, but he credits a New Zealander for introducing him to ‘the game within the game’.

‘Josh Kronfeld changed the face of rugby in the late-90s,’ Krige says of the former All Blacks flanker. ‘He would make a tackle, get up on the wrong side of the tackle, steal the ball and throw it to his peers, and everybody sat up and said “what was that?”’

Up until the early-noughties, the laws relating to the breakdown were more loosely policed than they are today, and Kronfeld’s relatively diminutive stature (1.85m, 95kg) gave him the required low centre of gravity to win the race for the ball on the ground.

Brumbies coach Eddie Jones soon picked up on the trend in 2000 and, having recognised the latent potential in a 1.80m, 100kg flanker by the name of George Smith, he set about designing a defensive plan around the 21-year-old rookie’s spectacular penchant for pinching possession.

‘Having a fetcher like George in defence meant that we could target a phase where we felt that the opposition was most vulnerable,’ says Jones.

With Smith’s skill set featured in Jones’s defensive system, Super Rugby’s bottom-feeders streaked to their first final in 2000, winning a championship the following season, and the pair applied the same blueprint to help the Wallabies to the 2003 Tri-Nations title.

‘You had to start planning around openside flankers,’ remembers Krige. ‘If you played against George Smith he was testing you at every ruck, and you’d rather commit too many than not enough, because he would steal the ball if you weren’t accurate.’

And so structured rugby was born as coaches began scripting which players would support the ball-carrier through a number of phases in an effort to minimise turnovers at the hands of opposing fetchers.

‘Rugby did become a lot more structured where every team started having set ball-carriers and set cleaners, and guys going around in pods to different places on the field,’ says Krige. ‘That was to ensure that you never had a situation where the ball-carrier was short of supporters to clean out.’

But even the most structured attacking play couldn’t always contain players like Smith, Phil Waugh, Marty Holah, David Croft or the irrepressible Richie McCaw.

Squat opensiders harnessed their short levers, perfecting the ride tackle by riding the ball-carrier to ground like a lassoed bull, and using the momentum of the tackle to swing back to their feet, ready to snatch the ball as it was placed.

Fetchers immediately began to pose a prohibitive risk to continuity and possession-based rugby. Such ball-hawks proved to be handfuls at the tackle point, forcing teams of cleaners to account for the threat, and as a result they provided the defensive line with a constant numerical advantage.

Coupled with the tendency of the referee to penalise the attacking side the longer they held on to the ball, most coaches soon reverted to investing their resources in a territory-based philosophy which handed possession – and therefore risk – to the opposing team.

The Bulls dominated the Currie Cup during the middle of this decade and won three of the last four Super 14 titles with stifling pressure tactics that inevitably became the modus operandi for the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks under Jake White.

Heinrich Brüssow rammed the point home against the gallivanting British & Irish Lions during last year’s tour of South Africa. The staunch Cheetahs fetcher repeatedly turned the expansive Lions over during his side’s close-fought 26-24 reverse against the tourists and again spoilt the visitors’ attacking plans for much of the three-Test series against the Boks.

At 1.81m and 101kg, Brüssow is built for the ground game, and he has fine-tuned the ability to get position on the ball immediately after the tackle so that the cleaners blast him back to his team’s side of the tackle.

But the 24-year-old Cheetahs fetcher saw enough of the new law interpretations during his brief stint in this year’s Super 14 – before suffering a season-ending knee injury in March – to know that his role will be radically different when he returns in 2011.

‘The rules are very strict, and they make the margin work more against you, which means you have to be more technical and precise, and your decision-making has to be a lot better,’ says Brüssow. ‘The tackler can’t steal the ball, so you have to take yourself out of a position to tackle.’

Brüssow’s admission is a massive blow to pint-sized fetchers. If the player with the best opportunity to pinch possession is now the second defender to arrive on the scene, why pick a stubby flanker when you can field a 1.93m, 112kg bruiser whose lineout and ball-carrying ability compensate for a slightly weaker ground game?

The fact that the turnover battle no longer pivots around the tackler’s ability to get to his feet quickly, but rather the momentum he brings in making a dominant hit, reinforces White’s assertion that bigger is better, and that fetchers belong near the bar fridge.

In Smith’s day, fetchers could single-handedly steal possession, making their influence on the outcome of a game decisive. But this season, matches have been won and lost at the gain line where stopping the ball-carrier’s momentum in the tackle has replaced lone-wolf turnovers as the common thread in successful sides.

‘Momentum is everything in this game, and if you don’t get it it’s hard to get points,’ says coach John Plumtree, whose Sharks topped the Currie Cup log with a competition-high 62 tries this season.

‘Nowadays, teams seldom have a specialised fetcher,’ says Erasmus. ‘Just look at our loose trio at the Stormers – Schalk is on the openside but he plays the situation like a No 8, Francois Louw is our fetcher and he’s on the blindside, and Duane Vermeulen is our momentum-getter from eight.

The Stormers management team were far quicker to predict the effects of, and adapt to, the new interpretations than their bumbling Bok counterparts. And this explains why Louw – who fed off Burger and Vermeulen’s driving tackles within a savvy Stormers defensive system during the Super 14 – found himself isolated behind a retreating Bok pack.

Erasmus believes that the versatility of the Stormers loose trio – all three players are more than capable with the ball in hand, at the lineout, in the tackle and at the breakdown – was instrumental in the team’s success this year, and that the new focus has necessitated a more collective approach to fetching.

‘If the law interpretations mean that refs are going to penalise the defensive team more, and you teach your one guy to run around the field and steal at rucks, he’s going to open holes in your defensive line.’

Does this spell the end of the fetcher?

‘I certainly hope not!’ says Smith, who is plying his trade with French club Toulon. ‘As a traditional No 7 I think there is still a place for them, you can see how they can change a game when they’re the first man to the ruck.

‘You still have fetchers today like David Pocock and Richie McCaw who have adapted really well to reacting quickly after making the tackle.’

Brüssow also isn’t about to join the unemployment queue.

‘I think you can still make a lot of steals close to the rucks, it’s just out wide where you’ll have to make your tackles.’

But the Bloemfontein ball-hawk will have to man up and dominate those tackles in 2011 to prove that vertically-challenged fetchers haven’t been made redundant.

Click here to subscribe to print edition

Click here to subscribe to digital edition