Boks short on time to gel

JON CARDINELLI writes that blending the playing styles of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers into a World Cup-wining formula may require more time than what’s currently available.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers addressed the media last Thursday, and spoke at length about South Africa’s World Cup preparations. De Villiers confirmed that planning camps will be staged in May, June and July. While there won’t be much physical activity at these camps, there will be technical discussions about how the Boks should play at the tournament in New Zealand.

The Kiwis are anticipating a Bok approach that centres around the kicking exploits of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn. Some scribes have taken the Bulls’ tactical dismantling of the Hurricanes as a sign of things to come, and expect the Boks to replicate that kick-and-chase strategy this September.

It was a strategy that proved so effective for the Boks in the 2009 Tri-Nations, but in the 2010 installment, they were punished for their lack of variation. They will cop another clout if they persist with this approach at the World Cup, as while it was good enough to beat the headless chickens parading as Hurricanes, it won’t trouble the top Test teams.

I’m not suggesting that the Boks abandon the tactic, as in certain situations it still has value. What I am suggesting is that they develop their game beyond it. They failed to do so in 2010, and as the record will show, they lost five Tri-Nations matches that season.

We’re seven rounds into the 2011 Super Rugby competition, and no team has looked as well-balanced as the Crusaders. The top three South African teams have played well in patches, and have all exhibited particular strengths. If these strengths were successfully combined, the Boks would boast a complete side.

The Stormers’ have been matchless at the tackle and their defence has unsettled the top attacking teams, while the Bulls are in possession of those two excellent tactical kickers, Du Preez and Steyn, as well as an imposing lineout. The Sharks’ attacking game can be devastating, and it’s the momentum of their forwards that’s most impressive in this respect.

De Villiers smiled at the media when asked about the current Super Rugby tournament and the performances of the top teams. He insisted that it’s a good thing to have options, but he also conceded that a clash of styles was at the heart of the Boks’ troubles last year.

The Bulls and Stormers competed in the 2010 final, and the bulk of those teams progressed to the Boks. When the national side began to struggle in the Tri-Nations, it was revealed that the camp was divided on the type of rugby they wanted to play.

De Villiers didn’t confirm the details of this disagreement, but he admitted that every player needs to be on the same page if the Boks are going to win the World Cup. The planning camps will help, but in terms of putting that shared philosophy into action, and actually establishing some on-field synergy, the Boks are pressed for time.

Super Rugby concludes in July and while the first-choice players will be included in the Tri-Nations squad, they won’t feature on the away leg of the Tri-Nations. This will give them an opportunity to condition ahead of the global tournament, just as the Bok side of 2007 did before they went on to win the Webb Ellis Cup.

Jake White’s team had a distinct advantage, however. They played three Tests before the Tri-Nations, and the best players were available for the first two matches of the Sanzar tournament. After that, the World Cup team were afforded opportunities to gel against the likes of Namibia, Scotland and Connacht. De Villiers’s team won’t have that luxury.

The incumbent coach has identified the World Cup pool matches against Wales, Samoa, Namibia and Fiji as the time to build synergy before they meet the better teams in the knockout stages. De Villiers wants to start his best players at every World Cup match, and while the Boks have the quality to beat the aforementioned teams, they will miss out on the chance to put their ‘hybrid strategy’ to a greater test.

The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will supply the bulk of the 2011 World Cup squad, and much can be taken from those three teams in terms of strategy. How the Bok management concocts a World Cup plan from that remains to be seen, as incorporating all three strategies will mean picking more versatile players.

The Kiwis are right to expect an approach reliant on tactical kicking if Steyn travels to New Zealand in September, and it begs the question of his value in the modern game. On the other hand, the Boks are running out of time to establish a hybrid playing style with men like Butch James as the axis. James can offer so many options, but will he have enough opportunities to gel with the first-choice team?

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