Springbok Rugby: Rassie Is Not Our Saviour

Springbok Rugby Coach Rassie Erasmus

Before I go any further, I want to make a few things clear: I love South African & Springbok Rugby. Whenever I get the opportunity to watch, I grab it, even when I know we’re up for six of the best. I love the Sharks almost as much as the Springboks, and have all my life. Like most South Africans, I publicly abhor, nay, hate, the Bulls, but silently admire what they have achieved. So yes, I might be dishing out a few wildly flailing punches, but I do it because I rather love rugby, in the same sense as our fathers told us that it hurt them more than us every time we had to get a hiding.

At this time in 2017, Springbok supporters were in good cheer. Three mediocre wins against an understrength French team lifted everyone’s tails up, because it was a turn-around from where we were in 2016. But we were in for a surprise. A big one. I don’t want to write about that, because it feels like a punch in the nether regions to think about it.

A year on, and South Africans are walking around with their chests so far out they may be mistaken for a certain Ms Parton. After two hard-fought victories against England, coming back from behind, and a scrappy loss in the third test, Rassie Erasmus is hailed as the saviour of Springbok pride. We have another big thing coming… New Zealand is waiting for us, and we will be entertained by the wrong team exploiting the weaknesses of South African rugby. Yet again.

But what about Rassie?” I hear the indignant calls. “What about Rassie?” I would ask in return. Our Springbok woes are not entirely to be lain down at the feet of the national coach. Yes, he does have an influence, but due to the sheer amount of games our players are forced to endure, our franchise coaches have quite a bit more influence.

Rassie is not the saviour of Springbok Rugby

The biggest problem we face for Springbok Rugby, is that at Super Rugby level our teams are playing stupid, predictable rugby. When players play in a certain way for fifteen games, one or two weeks with the Springbok coach aren’t going to smarten them up. They will reset to default at the drop of a hat, and that is to franchise rugby. Here goes.

All of our teams are addicted to the rush defence pioneered by a certain Jake White. We gift our opponents with overlaps that they only have to exploit, without having to going through the grind of working the line for an overlap. During the June series, England scored five tries after our backs shot up on the rush, as well as causing a few soiled shorts at other times. A rush defence is a mighty weapon to wield, when mixed up with all the other modalities of defence. But to use it in your own 22, against a team on the rampage will result in carnage.

South Africa has a surfeit of players who can break the gain line. Most of our midfielders and loosies, as well as a few of the hookers, have the skillset, pace and power to crash through the defence and keep on going. But having crossed the line, it seems as if they think their willies will drop off if they offload in the tackle. Yes, we do see some brilliant offloads, but they are few and far between. This generally gives the defence that crucial moment to regather, which won’t be a good thing once we face those gents in the black jerseys.

Even though South African players have learnt how to run support lines across the gain line, there are still too many times that there is no support runner in place for the offload. This gives the defence just one more moment to turn over the ball and start going the other way at express pace.

Things aren’t any better on the offence. How many times have we seen, even in tests, where the forwards get the ball in our own 22, try to run it out, and once we have eventually rucked it out of the 22, the scrummy does a box kick, gifting the ball to the opposition in a good position for the counter. Our fly-halves, plenty of whom have decent kicking boots on them, never see the ball in their own 22 with the express intent of kicking it into touch far down the field. Possession means nothing without territory, but we can’t seem to be able to wrap our minds around that.

Going down to the other end of the field, good attacking position in their 22, we only seem able to play bumper car rugby. The forwards keep going through the phases, building up 15 or more at a time. But the longer you keep the ball in that position, with that tactic, the greater the chances are of you conceding a turn-over. At this point, a grubber through the line can work wonders, like Gelant setting up Kriel in the third test. Or a finely balanced cross-field kick to an unmarked winger, which NZ teams can do in their sleep. And when push comes to shove, a drop goal. Putting ball on boot forces the defence to shift their focus, and gaps start magically opening up. If our fly-halves don’t get to do these things on a regular basis, they won’t be able to do it come the cauldron.

Now for my favourite: the drop goal. This has the power to shift the balance of morale right to your side, and you don’t necessarily have to be in their 22 to execute it. Defences can put their bodies on the line, doing everything to get the ball, doing nothing wrong, and still concede points. On the other side of the coin it’s just the other way around: we’re getting nowhere, but we still scored! How many times in the past has drop goals turned the tide for South African teams: Jannie de Beer, Morné and Francois Steyn. Even Curwin Bosch, Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies have tried this in the past. And we do have the players with the ability to use it to full effect. But again, if you don’t practice it in Super Rugby, you won’t do it against the All Blacks. It is kind of sad that the first successful drop goal this year in Super Rugby was only scored in the quarter final by Jantjies.

Then there is intensity. Or rather, a lack thereof. Lions exemplified this in the 2017 Final against the Crusaders. Going to halftime at 15-3 with Kwagga Smit in the bin for the rest of the match with a nice card to go with the red jersey, they came back from 25-3 down, eighteen minutes to play, and shifted down a gear, scoring two beautiful tries. With the scoreboard standing at 25-17 with eight minutes to play, one converted try and a penalty could see them crowned champions. But instead of going to greater heights, they took the foot off the accelerator. Walking with hanging heads to the line outs, they just fizzled out. Compare this to their 2018 quarter-final against the Jaguares. Even with no hope left, the Jaguares kept on coming right to the final whistle.

Last of all, the restart. Like with players, we tend to think that bigger is better (*cough* Brent Russel, *cough* Breyton Paulse, *cough* Heinrich Brüssow, *cough* Akker van der Merwe *cough, cough*). But all you are doing is giving the other team the opportunity to structure their attack with little to no pressure from the kicking team. If you drop the kick-off a bit shorter, your forwards will put pressure on the receiver, and maybe even give your winger a sniff of reclaiming the kick. And everybody kicks off to the same side. How about changing it up some? I’d like to take you back to the RWC 2007 Final. Butch James went short and to the right, with pinpoint accuracy on Paul Sackey. Twice. And both times he got a Flying Bryan in the ribs at the same time as the ball. What a way to shake the confidence of your opponent’s best weapon!

But all is not lost for Springbok Rugby! The situations I’ve described turn up about eight times in ten, and when we do get those two odd opportunities, we do it well! Our players have the skills, they have the knowledge to do better. All we have to do now is convince our coaches to turn that ratio around.

Our overseas-based players have a big role to play in this, using their experience to help the local youngsters reach the heights we know they are capable of.

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