JON CARDINELLI writes that the next Springbok coach can’t afford to make the same mistakes as his predecessor by favouring a conservative yet ultimately ineffective game plan.
There was disappointment and anger following Sunday’s quarter-final exit, but I don’t know why there was confusion. Nobody with half a brain can say that the Boks, in this incomplete and largely unprepared guise, were anything but underdogs in the matches against more rounded units like the Wallabies and All Blacks.
The Boks lost five out of six in the 2010 Tri-Nations, and three out of four in the subsequent Sanzar tournament. Over the course of both competitions, they were tactically outplayed by Australia and New Zealand who both appreciated the need for a balance between kicking the ball and running it.
In 2011, their coaching staff and senior players believed that there was no need to move away from what worked for South Africa in the past. There was a belief, or more a sense of arrogance, that the Boks would always be able to overpower an opponent, and that the tactics that worked in 2007 would yield the desired result again.
The reality is that Peter de Villiers and his merry men have failed South Africa in terms of developing a national playing style that makes full use of a fantastically gifted group of players.
De Villiers got it wrong when he pushed for the headless chicken approach in 2008, and was just as wrong when he moved to the other end of the scale in 2009. His vision for a total brand was compromised by poor results, and he took refuge in the plodding game plan that has always troubled most nations, but hardly tested the Wallabies and All Blacks as the laws have changed and the game has evolved.
They battled to score tries in the 2010 Tri-Nations, and when their best players returned from the conditioning camp in August 2011, the team scored all of their points through the goal-kickers. De Villiers said the tactical display in Port Elizabeth would be replicated at the World Cup, and the fact that the Boks had failed to score a try didn’t concern the coach, senior players or anybody else that had a stake in how the battle plan was formulated.
They scraped past Wales in their opening game, and De Villiers and captain John Smit wrote it off to the pressure of the occasion, assuring worried fans and stakeholders that they would improve as the tournament progressed. They appeared to improve in games against Fiji and Namibia, as they scored six tries against the islanders and 12 against their African neighbours, but this installed a false sense of confidence, and their shortcomings were highlighted in the following match against Samoa where missed opportunities nearly cost them the result.
Predictably, the Boks fell short when they met a team with the muscle and intelligence to nullify their forward threat. They dominated the set-pieces in the quarter-final against Australia, and controlled possession and territory, although they didn’t get the better of the Wallabies at the collisions and breakdowns.
At that crucial moment, and there were a fair few, they failed to finish. Their general attacking approach was also disappointing, with side to side movements proving largely ineffective. Over the course of 80 minutes the Wallabies turned in a brilliant defensive effort, although when you look at few of the Boks’ attacking ploys you’d have to say that the Aussies weren’t asked to work particularly hard.
The Boks ended the match having scored three penalties and no tries, a record consistent with that of the Tri-Nations games played in Port Elizabeth and Durban. They won in PE and lost at Kings Park but their attacking limitations in those Tests indicated that they wouldn’t pose the necessary all-round threat to top defensive teams.
Will the next Bok coach heed the lessons of 2011? This is the question Saru should ask themselves when they begin the assessment process after the World Cup. South Africa needs a coach with a technical appreciation for the modern game. This will allow him to make informed selections that will maximise all of South Africa’s strengths.
We will always be a country that produces the meat heads capable of overpowering the opposition, but we also possess players capable of alternating between a kicking or a running game.
Unfortunately, the wrong players were backed in decision making positions. De Villiers backed a one-dimensional player at flyhalf when he had the likes of Butch James and Pat Lambie, two players equally adept to kicking the ball as they are to bringing the backline into the game. And, unlike Swingdoor Steyn, these men can defend.
The future is bright if those in charge are willing to tap into the attacking talents of our players. Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Frans Steyn – these are but a few that have been around for awhile but have been rarely used as more than physical pawns in an abrasive battle plan. The next coach must maximise the strengths of these players, and find a way to blend their experience with the exuberance of Lambie, Francois Hougaard, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh and promising outsiders like Johann Sadie.
The pack will always be required to lay the platform, but with the backing of a bold, forward-thinking coach, the Boks will develop into a side that can realistically beat the top Test sides consistently, and play some entertaining rugby in the process.