What is Wrong With SA Rugby

I have been involved with rugby for a very long time. Around 50 years, at a guess.

My introduction to rugby was something of a shock. I was sent to boarding school as I moved into my first year of high school. At junior school we had played soccer, rugby was reserved for the giants up at our high school campus, an area we did not dare visit for fear of some unspecified retribution from those gigantic seniors we saw in the distance from time to time. At boarding school, at one of South Africa’s biggest and oldest rugby schools, named after Paul Roos, a famous Springbok Captain and with a host of Springboks on the Honours Board, I was introduced to the game. A big, somewhat chubby, very clumsy youngster with very little natural ball skill, I was told that I would be a forward and would play lock.

I had no idea what a lock forward was, in fact, I had no idea of the difference between forwards and backs. I had no idea at all about the basics of the game itself. Who did what, and why? I quickly figured that I was not going to get the ball passed to me too often, I was very likely to make a grab for the ball and drop it…. The only thing I could do well, really well, was shove in the scrums. I was big, and I was strong. So I shoved as hard as I possibly could in each and every scrum.

I also eventually learned to catch the ball in the lineouts. Those furious scrabbles for the ball that passed for a lineout in the U/14 E&F teams were something of a lottery anyway, and I was just a little taller than some of the other forwards, so I could sometimes grab the bobbing ball and hold on to it.

And that was about it! I had no running skills, no handling skills, and no idea what the object of the game was in any case. I wandered around from scrum to lineout, actively avoiding getting involved in some of the other stuff that was happening out there. This was not difficult. Down in the E’s and F’s most of the other participants were doing the same. For our twice weekly pratices we were allocated the most distant field in all of rugbydom. Our school was allowed to use the hallowed rugby fields of Stellenbosch University for practices, and ours was the least hallowed of them all. Right at the foot of the mountain that towers over Stellenbosch University’s Coetzenberg sports complex.

The field was so far away from where the senior teams plied their trade that we would often only arrive at the field with a scant 15 minutes or so of practice time left before we had to troop our way back to civilization. This distant field suited most of us just fine, rugby was not really that important in any of our lives, and some of the more rebellious members of our squad would nip off into the river bed near the fields for their experiments at being grown up, sucking down the smoke of a Lucky or a Texan cigarette before rejoining the squad for practice, reeking of smoke and often just a little green about the gills.

And our coach, a mild-mannered pipe smoking science master who had been allocated the extra-mural job of coaching the U/14 leftovers, was quite happy to leave us alone to wander around the field, occasionally blowing his whistle and telling us to scrum down. He had never played the game himself, and he was certainly not going to get involved with any attempt to communicate any of the intricacies of the game to bunch of disinterested youngsters who were playing rugby only because school rules demanded that you participate in a winter sport.

One day a minor miracle occurred. The coach from the C&D squad came across to our distant field and spoke to our coach. After a couple of moments the C&D man pointed at me, crooked his finger to indicate that he required my immediate presence. I was informed that I had been promoted to the D team, with immediate effect. I was a little surprised, mildly excited, and just a little sad that I would be leaving my fellow E&F’ers behind.

The rugby played in the C & D team squad was a whole lot different to the rambling shambles of the E&F squad. Some of these guys had aspirations! They wanted to earn the right to play in the A&B squad! The coach, one of the school’s PE teachers, was still actively playing rugby for the Van Der Stel club, the club that provided a home for those not associated with the famous Stellenbosch University rugby club. He knew something about the game, and for the first time I was told what I was supposed to do with the ball after I had caught it in the lineout.

I was not much good at the game, but I was doing my job as a scrummer and lineout catcher well enough to slowly find myself elevated to the “C” team once or twice during the remainder of that first season of rugby. The next year, my U/15 year, found me firmly entrenched as a lock in the “C” team. I scrummed behind a somewhat disinterested youngster who did not really take rugby very seriously. He laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy crumpling his opponents into the dirt. Hempies du Toit would become one of South Africa’s foremost prop forwards! Back then he was still unrecognized for the powerhouse he would one day become. I like to believe that my unlimited scrumming power behind him contributed largely to his being recognized as a great prop in later years.

I left Paul Roos Gymnasium a year later, never having risen above “C” team ranks, I still had no idea how to catch or pass a ball, and had even less idea how to run with the ball. I was, I guess, a somewhat below average rugby player.

I returned to the school of my youth, now one of those mythical seniors of the upper campus, the Top Field area. We were a small private school under the auspices of the Irish Christian Brothers movement. Our teachers were hugely enthusiastic Irish monks who loved the game of rugby and adored the ethos of the game; they lived for the on-field confrontation, though they were essentially clueless about the intricacies of the game itself. We were taught to play the game with huge enthusiasm, but with scant regard for skill or tactics. It was something of the old “Bugger the ball, let’s get on with the game!” ethos….

We did not receive much coaching in the essential skills of the game. We received almost zero instruction or practice in the tactics and methods of rugby, but we did play with that Irish enthusiasm. By the time I returned from Stellenbosch I had grown a bit. I had left as a slightly taller than average chubby kid, I came back three years later as a 2m tall young giant who wore size 14 boots! And I could scrum and jump in lineouts. I quickly found myself in the 1xt XV. It was easy to be a Big Fish in a very small pond, and I had been to one of the biggest rugby schools in the world, so I had to be good!

My tenure in the school First XV clashed quite seriously with the dark and terrible storms of teenage angst and rebelliousness! I was far more interested in Woodstock, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin, and the Anti-Establishment ethos of the times. I was an angry young man. I am not sure what I was angry about, but boy, was I angry! I smoked, I experimented with alcohol, I bunked classes, and generally glared at the world.

Rugby was something we had to do, and I did what I had to, but with no real interest in the game. I played the game, but my mind was elsewhere.

It was in the years immediately after school that I discovered rugby in a way that has made it one of the loves of my life. Initially in my first year in the army and subsequently at university I suddenly discovered the game of rugby. We played a lot of touch rugby, and it was on the touch-rugby fields that I started to learn how to catch the ball, how to pass it and offload it and run with it! I realized that I needed to be fitter and faster; I had to concentrate on what was happening on the field. I had to banish that Deep Purple soundtrack from my mind until the game was over!

I was enjoying rugby! I was mildly surprised by my own enthusiasm, and did not realise how long the game would stay in my life. I was also gradually starting to get better and better at the game. I played with a new-found understanding of the tactics and methods of the game, I was learning more and more with every game and every practice. And I was rising up the ranks as a player too!

I played the game until an injury in 1976 brought my playing days to a premature end. I did try and make a come-back, but medical science in those days had not yet figured how to repair the damage I had suffered to my knee and even a mechanical brace did not work for me. Today that injury requires reconstructive surgery and six months out of the game, and you can play again. Back in the 70’s my game was over.

While recuperating from that injury I started to coach a university residence team. The coaching bug bit, though it was still just a mildly infectious bite back then. For the next couple of years, I would help at a local school as an enthusiastic but still somewhat clueless assistant coach. I then helped at the club where I played cricket and squash and avidly supported the rugby teams. I was nothing much more than a general skivvy doing all the shitty little jobs coaches hated to do themselves. I carried bags of balls, collected dirty jerseys and hauled them to the local laundry; I held the 1st XV players watches and wallets in a canvas bag during games; I eventually also served as match secretary; I did the warm-ups and the stretching exercises before practice started. Baby steps, but I was learning!

We had a couple of retired Springboks in the club ranks, we had some current provincial players and a couple more retired provincial players. We had coaches who had played the game at the highest levels, we had club management of the old-school type, men who had played the game, coached the game, and still retained their love of the game enough to stay on in administrative and management roles.

And I was learning from them all. I worked in a bank in those bad old days, and banks still closed on Wednesday afternoons. Instead of spending Wednesday afternoons sleeping or simply being lazy, I hauled myself off to one of the most famous rugby schools in South Africa, Grey College in Bloemfontein, where I would sit in the shade of a handy pepper tree and watch one of the most famous rugby coaches of the time, Stoney Steenkamp, working with his 1st team squad. I observed, and I learned.

I was a sponge, soaking in as much as I could about the intricacies, the tactics, the strategies, the methods, the drills, the skills, everything I could learn about the game of rugby. It was a valuable time in my life as a young coach taking my first, my baby steps, in the world of rugby coaching.

I moved back to the Western Cape and joined False Bay Rugby Club’s coaching squad. I had the pleasure of working with even more coaches who knew the game backwards, the likes of Clive Jordaan and the late great Basil Bey. in 1985 I passed my Level One coaching course at the old WP Rugby Bureau. I attended back-line clinics and forward clinics and scrum clinics and lineout clinics. I listened to the likes of Prof Hannes Marais teaching us about the minutiae of scrumming in the front row. I listened to refs and visiting coaches, I watched the successful coaches at work.

I qualified as a referee, not to carry the whistle so much as to learn about the laws of the game. I continued with my formal rugby qualifications, Level Two, Level Three… I am not sure what the modern equivalent of those old Level qualifications are, but they were as good as it got in those olden days.

I moved provinces, first to the old South West Africa and then to the Transvaal, and in both those provinces I had the good fortune to become involved with really top level rugby clubs. I coached at First team level, with teams full of provincial stars, a couple of Springboks too. I served on various rugby committees at provincial and club levels, I served as a selector, and I was especially honoured to be elected Club Captain at Pirates Rugby Club.

In the middle 1990’s, somewhat reluctantly, I started to back away from too many rugby related commitments. I had reached a position of national management in my work, a job that required me to visit our branches across the country from time to time and to attend functions and make speeches in distant country towns and agricultural regions. I had a family that also required my undivided attention, a new daughter had arrived.

After more than 20 years of involvement as a coach, the time had come to retire from the ranks. Rugby had become a professional sport, but a club coach was not paid enough to live on and many of my priorities had changed.

I remained involved with the game in a somewhat distant manner. I helped draft a new coaching programme for a provincial union, I “consulted” to a couple of schools, identifying issues and problems that I could communicate to team coaches with advice on how to fix the problem. I was no longer coaching, but I wandered around on the fringes.

And I started to write about the game.

Which, in a long and convoluted way, brings me to today.

I watched this weekend’s Super Rugby games with my usual interest. I watched with a critical coach’s eye too. I watch to see how teams are developing, I watch to see what they are doing about their strengths and weaknesses, I watch to see how they deal with problems, I watch to see how they build on those parts of their game that are working well, and how they work to eliminate the mistakes and problems from their game.

And I watch with special interest to see what South African rugby teams are doing to improve on their game. I watch to see whether they have learned the lessons that this game of rugby teaches us.

Sadly, for the most part, I do not see much evidence of any learning at all.

I see teams playing the same, archaic, unenterprising, unexciting, dour style of rugby weekend after weekend. I see at least two South African teams that persist with a style that revolves around pods of forwards meandering around in the midfield, with every ball cycled from broken play, rucks or mauls simply popped straight to a pod of forwards and then lurched into contact, taken to ground, and recycled for the same play to be repeated again and again. The Sharks are the masters of the art of forward-pod rugby, while the Bulls are wannabe lurchers.

This style of rugby has resulted in a batch of scrumhalves with zero enterprise or vision on the field of play. Their job has become one of simply pop-passing the ball to the next forward in line. He no longer has to make any decisions about the direction of play or tactics to be adopted, he simply follows the ball, secures it from the feed on the ground, and then looks around for someone to pop it to. Watch the difference between a Fourie du Preez, TJ Perenara, Georgie Gregan, or an Aaron Smith and the current batch of South African Super Rugby scrumhalves. The former all had the sense to make up their minds about where they will be taking the ball before they get to the ruck, maul, or loose ball. When they get to the ball they already know what they are going to do with it. The next play is quick, almost instantaneous.

Watch the likes of Rudy Paige, Cobus Reinach, Faf de Klerk, or any other current scrum-half in South Africa. They all get to the ball fairly quickly, but only then decide what they are going to do with it. More often than not the decision is taken from them by a team strategy of playing the ball to pods of forwards as the default option. It is very predictable, and very slow.

That extra second or two before a decision is made allows defensive alignment by opponents, and it slows or even loses attacking opportunity. (De Klerk is perhaps slightly better than the other two as he has a quicker pass and is more likely to do something unpredictable with the ball in hand. He sometimes makes his mind up before he gets to the ball. He has the makings of a very good scrumhalf, but I am not sure that he is being coached correctly.)

This archaic style of forward-pod rugby is incredibly static rugby. The forwards waiting for the ball are static and take the ball into contact without any momentum or purpose, they simply crash into contact and fold to ground to protect and set up the ball for the scrumhalf. There is no enterprise, no thought about moving the ball around, nobody takes the ball through the tackle and releases it to a supporting runner.

Huge, bully boy loose forwards reign supreme as they are preferred by coaches as “ball carriers” with their physical attributes more important rather than their enterprise and thinking play. If ever there are two loose-forwards that fit the mold of crashball thugs it is the two Du Preez brothers. They were born twins, and they play exactly the same style of rugby football. And it is that simple, bully boy muscularity without any enterprise style that makes the Sharks so boring!

Yep, it can and does win games, especially against mediocre teams, but the quicker, more enterprising teams, like the New Zealand based franchises, simply take the game away from the forwards and contact points, and run them ragged.

One of the saddest things of all is to see how this archaic rugby style has stopped players from running onto the ball at speed.

When I was learning the ropes of coaching I was taught about the Three S’s of Rugby: Speed, Surprise, and Space. Playing the game at high speed, seeking to surprise your opponents, and seeking out the open spaces on a rugby field. This is the very basic of good rugby!

Popping the ball to pods of forwards is none of those things!

We were taught about the Four P’s too – Precision, Pace, Power, and Position. Playing the game with absolute precision of passing, kicking, offloading. Playing the game with pace, all the time. Playing the game with power, driving on and through a tackle, driving on and through the ruck or maul, power in every move. And then playing to gain an advantageous position in the field. Playing to take the ball to a position on the field where you can release your strike runners to head for the goal line.

Popping the ball to a pod of forwards is none of those things.

One of the very tenants of the game of rugby is to run onto the ball at speed. When the scrumhalf passes the ball from the base of the scrum or from a ruck, it should be aimed a meter or two in front of the receiver, who should be running onto the ball with some speed. (Watch the New Zealanders do it, they do not take a ball standing still!) That initial movement before receiving the ball gives the recipient momentum into and through the tackle, but also gives the player the advantage of being able to target an inside or outside shoulder at pace.

Watching the Bulls shovel the ball down a backline to a winger who is standing still when he gets the ball and two tacklers at the same instant is as heartbreaking as it gets! The only player who has any idea of running onto the ball appears to be Jesse Kriel. Sadly, none of his team mates have any idea how to pass a ball in front of the receiving player.

The Sharks are not much better at running onto the ball either. There is some hope, though: The Lions do it fairly well, the Stormers are learning to do it consistently, and the Cheetahs are prepared to run from anywhere.

Part of the problem is fairly evident. The backlines are lining up flat and shallow, even on attack. We were taught to play, and coach, the “Numbers Game” – You must be able to see the number of the man with the ball all the time and in any movement. Firstly, you cannot be offside. This also means you are not going to be getting a forward pass, and it definitely means you will have to run onto the pass when he lets it go. It is one of the basics of the game!

The flat standing backline tactic finds its roots in that great Australian Wallaby team of 1984 that won the Grand Slam of victories in their tour of The United Kingdom and Ireland. They had Mark Ella at flyhalf, and developed the theory that a flat standing backline that launched attacks from close to the advantage line (called the gain line today) had more chance of scoring if they broke the defending line quickly and before cover defenders could get into position. It was a great theory at the time. Backlines traditionally lined up in a deep vee or slant across the field, depending on the position of the set pieces, and then ran onto the ball from some distance back.

We used to talk about the “advantage line” and the “tackle line” with the latter being where a line of defenders would meet the line of attackers with the ball. The “tackle line” was frequently some distance behind the advantage line. This distance was enhanced when you had a flyhalf that liked to stand very deep in the pocket. Naas Botha was one such deep standing flyhalf who often stood almost ten meters further from the advantage line than most of his contemporaries. He did have the advantage of a siege gun boot which allowed him to kick his team back onto the front foot, but when he decided to run with the ball his backs were frequently caught ten or twelve meters from the advantage line.

The Aussies figured that starting the attack with a shallow lying backline meant that they would cross the advantage line before the tacklers had the chance to get to them. They effectively shifted the tackle line over and beyond the advantage line. Their support players, especially loose-forwards would be running onto the ball going forwards, rather than having to turn and wait for the backs to come level with them. This tactic worked very well if you could transfer the ball from player to player quickly and accurately. Handling skills were paramount. If you fumbled or dropped the ball, you were in all kinds of trouble as your fellow backs would have to turn to defend. It was high pressure rugby and required quick thinking, quick hands and quick feet. However, if you broke through the defence of your opponents quickly, you could run into clear space, as their cover defenders had not had the chance to get across to defend behind their own backs.

Modern rugby figured out this tactic. The Rush defence gets to the oncoming attackers extremely quickly and negates their advantage of surprise. Defenders insert themselves between the attacking backs to prevent the quick passes and rapid offloads. Some of the defenders even specialize in intercepting passes and counter attacking immediately. South Africa’s Jean de Villiers became a master of the art of interception. Thinking coaches and players have negated the flat backline tactic.

The flat lying attack also requires supreme ball skills and it has slowly fallen from favour for a preferred hybrid somewhere between the deep and the flat attack. But this hybrid is still focused on the aforementioned “Numbers Game” – You still have to see the number of the man from whom you expect to get the ball.

This is simple stuff, though, and to see a Bulls or Sharks backline standing static as they pass the ball down the line is as wrong as it gets.

Quite simply, this is a coaching issue! Any coach worth his salt will quickly spot the problem and sort it out with a few choice words. It is not rocket science.

Which brings me to the next issue:

Watching some South African (and Australian) teams play I am seeing a sad neglect of many of the basics of the game of rugby. The very core skills required of every rugby player, be he in the U/8s, the Super Rugby squads, or in the Springboks/Wallabies appear to have been very badly neglected.

Think on these:

The most basic of Core Skills: Picking up and Holding the Ball. A rugby player must be able to pick up the rugby ball in almost any circumstance. It is the first of all the handling skills. The rolling ball, the bouncing ball, the static ball, a player must be able to pick the ball up. And then he must hold onto the ball. How many times have you seen a Super Rugby player stripped of the ball, how many times have you seen a Springbok back or loose-forward stripped of the ball. It happened an awful lot last year, the visiting Irish rugby team actively targeted stripping the ball off Springbok backs, they had spotted the weakness and exploited it. It is happening again in Super Rugby 2017.

Catching the Ball. Another core skill that has become something of a mystery to many South African and Australian rugby teams. The Bulls have made 231 handling errors in 2017, the Sharks 319, the Stormers 277, the Lions 304, the Kings 266, and the Cheetahs 288. By anyone’s reckoning that is an awful lot of handling errors. Consider too that some of the teams have had less than 50% of possession in most of their games. (I will not give you the Aussie stats, but rest assured that they are even worse that the SA stats!)

Passing the Ball. Passing the ball is one of the very basic parts of the game of rugby. If I look at the stats for South African teams in Super Rugby, I am seeing an average of 14% of all passes going astray. The New Zealanders are much better at around 9%, while the Aussies should be blushing at more than 21% of passes going astray.

Kicking the Ball. I do not want to talk about the poor kicking that has invaded our game in the last couple of years! The inaccuracy in tactical kicks, the pointlessness of simply hoofing it up-field, the missed touch-finders, the aimless box-kicking, the up-and-unders to nowhere, the chips and grubbers charged down or into an opponent’s legs are legion. The ball is a gift, why are you kicking it away? And if you cannot kick accurately, then you should never ever kick the ball!

Moving With The Ball. Any player must be able to carry the ball, he must be able to run with it, he must know which hand or arm to hold the ball in, and how to protect the ball while he is carrying it. A wing must know how to run with the ball under one arm, a midfielder must be able to run with the ball in both hands, getting ready to pass it, lift it over a tackle, take it away from grasping hands. A prop must know how to carry the ball into contact and protect it. This is Core Skill stuff.

Moving Without the Ball. A player must also know how to move without the ball. He needs to know where to run in support, he needs to know where to run on defence, how to step up an attacking or a defensive alignment. He must know when to run onto the ball, when to run close to the ball carrier, and when to run off the ball. He must learn to run into space and look for attacking opportunities. He must, conversely, know how to shut down attacking opportunities and running spaces. He must know how to run to set himself to make a tackle. More Core Skill stuff. I did see a brief moment of this skill when Jan Serfontein ran a perfect line off the ball to collect a pass and score the Bull’s final try on Saturday. It was one bright glimmer in an otherwise dire day.

Getting Away From Tacklers. Do you recognize this skill? It is absolutely one of the Core Skills! It is about stepping and sidestepping, it is about elusive running, it is about beating the opponent on the outside and on the inside. It is about bamboozling and breaking defences. It is about AVOIDING contact. It is what the All Blacks and all the New Zealand franchises do so very very well. Their entire game is built on this Core Skill.

And it is a Core Skill that is completely and utterly ignored by any game plan built on pods of forwards who take the ball into contact to set up the ruck and recycle process, over and over again. It is a Core Skill that is completely ignored when your midfield focusses on crashball running and taking the ball to ground to recycle it. It is a Core Skill that is completely ignored when forwards play the pick-and-go game all afternoon. It was a Core Skill ignored by Heyneke Meyer at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. It was a Core Skill ignored by Allister Coetzee in most of last year’s Test matches. It was a Core Skill ignored by the Junior Boks in 2016.

Yet, look at the Blitzbokke and watch how they make sublime use of this very Core Skill.

These individual Core Skills are the most important part of playing rugby at any level of the game. What`s the point if you can`t catch the ball every time, or make the catchable pass? What’s the point if you are going to trundle into tackle after tackle? What’s the point if you are going to hoof the ball up-field without any clear intent or purpose.

And it is these very Core Skills that seem to be missing in South African and Australian Rugby at the moment.

Beyond these Core Skills there are the basics of the game itself.

Attacking Skills, controlling the ball, treasuring it and not kicking it away aimlessly, running with the ball in hand, taking the ball through tackles, looking for space, looking for weaknesses, trying something different, taking a risk for high reward. These things seem to have been ignored.

Defending Skills, the number of missed tackles, the fruitless lunge with arms outstretched, the half arm tackle. Defending is a skill that used to be a South African strength, but we are seeing far too many slipped tackles at the moment. Some teams (Stormers) have no defensive strategy or plan at all, or so it seems.

Backing up. Rugby is a team game. It is all about the 15 men on the field supporting each other at all times. The ball carrier must know where his support is, he must know where his pass or offload must go, he must have absolute confidence that someone will be there to take the ball further.

Those who do not have the ball in hand must know where to run and how to support the ball carrier. They must understand how to run close support and how to run off-the-ball. South Africa has one of the finest running fullbacks in the world in Willie le Roux, yet he was frequently man alone as he took the ball up, and then found his support runners missing in action. To many unthinking fans Willie le Roux was thus a poor rugby player when the reality is that his support players are very poor at backing up!

Thinking Ahead. Sometimes this is called “vision” and it is something that can be learned by most rugby players. You can learn to predict with a certain amount of accuracy where the game will go from any given situation, and this will allow you to be in the right place at the right time, depending on your on-field specialty. It is good for a prop to know where the ball will go if the flyhalf looks as if he will kick it, but it would be a little silly if he decides to position himself as an extra fullback. That is not his job, he needs to consider where the ball will land if one of his teammates kicks it back!

Of course there are those special players who have a better feel for the game and better “vision” than others, they are blessed with an extra talent, but almost every rugby should have the skill to read the game and think ahead.

A good style of rugby. I do consider this one of the basics of the game of rugby. There are some very important issues in this basic of rugby. The ball is a gift, do not waste it. The ball must never be allowed to die, it must be kept alive as much as possible. And it is here where we revert to those Three S’s that are at the very heart of the game. Speed, Surprise, and Space. A great style of rugby knows how to exploit all three.

At the very top of all these Core Skills and the Basics of the Game of Rugby rests the issue of coaching. For any country to produce a national side of quality, the coaching of Core Skills and the Basics of the Game must start at the very foundations of the game, be they 6 years old or 16 years old. Coaching is critical, and that is where South Africa and Australia seem to be failing.

Pity the franchise coach who has a batch of players who are not well versed in the Core Skills. Pity the coach who should try and build a winning team with players who cannot execute the basics properly. Pity the national coach who must labour to produce a winning team with faulty materials.

The fault does not lie with the coach. It lies with the system.

And that is what is wrong with South African Rugby at the moment.