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Taking Stock of Springbok Rugby Part 1

After watching the All Blacks literally “blitz” the Boks in the 2nd half of Saterday’s test – a “home” game for the Boks AND at high altitude (something that used to be a distinct advantage for SA teams when playing international visitors), I felt the urge to share my views.

Following Saturday’s drubbing, I’m sure the long knives will be waiting to be embedded firmly into Bok coach Heyneke Meyer’s back – as has been the tradition in SA ever since the dawn of the professional era (after RWC 1995) when a Springbok team loses a couple of games and, ESPECIALLY, at home. There will also be those who feel the urge to express their wrath against the referee, who, in their minds, was undoubtedly the sole reason for the loss. Let’s not forget the players – darn it, they’re all paid mega-bucks every year to play for their country, and yet they fail to display the passion and commitment of the Boks of yesteryear. All sorts of solutions do the rounds – docking their pay when they lose is but one. I know the feeling as I have also succumbed to these emotional outbursts at times during past years.

However, life in the rugby world is not as simple as we would like to imply it is. There are few teams that manage to beat the Boks twice in succession, especially if the games are both HOME and AWAY. The All Blacks have done this a few times and when they do, SA goes into severe shock! It’s at these times that fans and officials alike scream for changes and the coach is usually the most likely target. Remember, if the coach goes, usually the team changes dramatically, so why go for the players when you can kill two birds with one stone?

OK, that’s the scenario we’re facing now. The irony of this situation can be linked to the scenario after the end of Jake White’s volatile, yet phenomenally successful reign – after RWC 2007, when the Boks reigned supreme. When the candidates for the replacement Bok coach were announced, the loudest appeals were for one Mr. Heyneke Meyer, who had steered the Bulls to great heights in both local & Super Rugby competitions. The noise became deafening when the head of SA rugby, Oregan Hoskins, announced that a little-known chap with no track record of any significance, was going to be appointed (with political motivation) to guide the Boks to a (hopefully) successful defence of their RWC title in 2011. Notwithstanding the fact that the Boks achieved TWO significant victories (British & Irish Lions & Tri-Nations) during the reign of Pieter De Villiers, their efforts to retain the RWC in New Zealand were thwarted by Australia in what will remain (in SA circles) to be the most controversial game they have ever played and lost.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the controversial and sometimes confusing reign of Pieter De Villiers (aka Piet Snor; aka P-Divvy (a play on the rap singer’s name)) was quite successful, and, like that of Jake White, his reign ended under a cloud of accusations & counter-accusations of unfair treatment etc. It seems that SA will not see any Springbok coach serve his term and leave the post without controversy.

Anyway, the irony I mentioned is that the same Heyneke Meyer that was overlooked for the 2008-2011 seasons, managed to get appointed as the replacement for Pieter De Villiers. Oh happy day! OR – WAS it?

Almost immediately there were cries for someone else, but the most venom was spewed forth when he announced his first squad. The selection was blatantly lopsided in favour of the team that earned him his previous accolades, The Bulls. The provincialism displayed by rugby fans in South Africa can be compared to a cat and the territory it marks for itself. Nothing else matters.

After the years of isolation when SA was excluded from all international rugby, the Currie Cup was our saviour. This is where the trouble with provincialism began. It was unfortunately not limited to the fans and the first Springbok teams post isolation, were severely hamstrung by the attitudes of players from the various provincial teams who displayed a tendency to be loyal to their provincial team-mates, rather than the entire Bok team. Captaincy was extremely problematic as acknowledged in various biographies right up to John Smit’s reign when Bulls players would rather receive instructions from Victor Matfield (Bulls Captain) than John Smit (Sharks Captain).

OK, so this email isn’t quite getting to the point – or is it? DID I MENTION THAT SA RUGBY IS A COMPLEX AFFAIR? In fact there is one MAJOR difference between Springbok and All Blacks rugby that, I believe, makes ALL the difference in ultimately achieving success – consistently. Unfortunately for the Boks, this difference favours the All Blacks – and we can’t even blame the ref! In fact, strictly speaking, we can’t blame the coaches either.

I am an avid watcher of the New Zealand rugby show RE-UNION. In my opinion this is THE best rugger show on TV as it’s ALL ABOUT RUGBY AND NOTHING ELSE! The host & guests are always experienced and probably the most unbiased bunch of rugby fanatics I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. A number of years ago – sometime during the period when SA was having a “Coach-crisis” – BEFORE Kamp Staaldraad (I think) – Murray Mexted was discussing the SA coaching problems and apart from mentioning the political problems that, at times, make any coach’s job a nightmare, and had resulted in a regular turnover of individuals, he mentioned something rather interesting. . .

Whenever a Bok coach is appointed, he struggles to get the team to play the game according to his own “vision”. We’re not talking about game plans here, we’re talking about the “style” of play – this was most evident when Carel Du Plessis was in charge and the Boks only seemingly “got it right” with his last game as coach when they thumped Oz with a 63-point blitz. The more often coaches change, the more the Boks have to ‘re-learn’ to play the game and this is probably even more difficult to come to terms with, than the previously mentioned, provincialism.

However, in New Zealand, according to Murray Mexted, every coach, from schoolboy level right to the All Blacks squad, coaches the same “style” of rugby. The coach’s job is to ensure the players get it right and to slot in variations and tactics, whilst honing skills levels and discipline. The net result is that the players get to settle-in to squads quickly and, above-all, their skills levels are already there from their school, club and provincial days. The All Blacks have also shown that a change in coaching staff is not a major issue for the above reasons and new players do not usually weaken the team. So, whilst they might have a number of new faces in their team, as we witnessed, the team played with as much passion & skill as any other All Blacks team has done and the fact that they’re the reigning world champs appears to have given them an abundance of confidence as well.

This, my friends, is an ominous situation for world rugby. We could have, what I would liken to “The Perfect Storm” of the rugby world. Whilst I am without reservation a die-hard Springbok fan, I have always been a fan of the All Blacks, both for the way they play the game and for the passion with which they play it. I would be a gigantic hypocrite if I denied this and I know of a few mates who were pretty annoyed when I became an “Honorary All Blacks Fan” after the Boks were knocked out of RWC2011. I was also one of the loudest AB’s fans when I watched the final :-).

Getting back to “The Perfect Storm”, we now find the All Blacks equalling the record they share with the Springboks of 17 wins in succession and I have no doubt they will set a new record. The only question is, when will they be beaten? With the end of year tours starting shortly, I reckon the AB’s will make another clean-sweep of the Northern Hemisphere teams and go on to take the record into the 20’s. I must add that they deserve nothing less.

Regards, Tony (Ant) Calitz

On Thursday, we publish Part 2 of Tony’s article. This will focus on the different approaches between SA and New Zealand in the development of young players.

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