SA teams must make mental shift

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says South African teams need to play with more skill and less reliance on physicality and penalty kicks.

This was the most encouraging weekend of the 2012 Super Rugby season because we got a sense of the improvement needed from the South African challenge if the winner of the tournament is to come from within the Republic.

Every team will lose often in this year’s league stages, so defeats now should not evoke hysteria or panic among the pre-tournament favourites. The challenge will be having a squad of first-choice players fit and on the field for the July and August play-offs. Only then will it be the tournament proper.

For now the disappointment of defeat one week will be replaced with a sense of victorious relief the next.

The Crusaders lost at home, or as near to home as this side has been in the past 18 months. The Bulls lost at home, and in the first two weeks the Waratahs and Blues also lost at home.

Several of the home defeats have been by a point or three. It is nothing dramatic.

But the South African mindset has to change if our teams are going to challenge for consistency in performance, and they need to play with more skill and less reliance on physicality and penalty kicks.

SA has the players and the intellectual rugby capital in the coaches to evolve a limited approach that brings success in the Currie Cup but has not been a guarantee in Super Rugby.

New Zealand’s players have had the most telling effect in the early stages. There has been intelligence in their play, structure and belief that the game involves passes as much as it does kicks.

SA ’s obsession with being the tough guys can remain the domain of, and blueprint for, domestic Currie Cup rugby but in a global tournament there has to be greater variety.

The South African match-ups have been predictable, but that should not make them acceptable. Springbok rugby, at its finest, has never been one-dimensional. Think of the Boks’ 50-pointer against France in Paris in 1997 or the 50-pointer against the Wallabies in Johannesburg a couple of years ago. These are just two of many examples and the players, coaches, rugby public and rugby media in this country have to constantly be reminded that South African teams can win and have won against international and foreign opposition playing with the skill to complement the hardened and confrontational stereotype that is too often presented as the face of South African rugby.

The South African coaches have been as willing as those in New Zealand and Australia to select youngsters but they have not been quite as liberal across the board in defeating a mindset that doesn’t accommodate the freedom to develop skills if this comes at the expense of a few short-term defeats.

The Bulls are the most balanced of SA’s sides in their approach but even they lack the balance of the Kiwis. The New Zealanders play better rugby and don’t compromise on intensity or physicality.

I don’t subscribe to the view that our backs are less skilled. Neither do I believe the nonsense that Australia’s forwards lack our physicality. Go tell that to James Horwill and David Pocock.

Let’s also not retreat into the laager and blame referee interpretation or supposed referee bias for the Cheetahs’ defeat in Canberra or the Bulls’ loss in Pretoria.

In both games the outcome could have favoured the South Africans if more rugby was played and if players accepted that a pass can be more effective in beating defence than the conventional head down and bash it up into contact.

All the teams are showcasing a new generation of player, but SA ’s generation still reverts too often to the conservative evils of their predecessors.

Bulls supporters should not be discouraged at the defeat. The Blues’ expansive approach has traditionally troubled the Bulls and historically the Blues are one foreign team that have done well at Loftus.

The encouragement has to be that if the Bulls, the Sharks and possibly the Stormers are to win the final then they have to offer more than we have seen so far. A failure to evolve how they play will mean a similar lost opportunity in the Rugby Championship.

The Bulls didn’t play badly, but they didn’t have enough substance all round to win. It was not a game lost by the Bulls; rather it was one the Blues won. Give the visitors their due.

Most importantly, recognise that South African defeats are victories if the goal is to develop our players, instead of always relying on the highveld altitude and the misguided attitude that as South Africans we have the brawn, but in rugby intelligence we are always second to the Aussies and Kiwis.