Time to move beyond the arm-wrestle

The Stormers/Bulls rugby match was just another agonising reminder for the thousands of South African rugby supporters that SA rugby is behind the ball game. It was a derby with as much traditional backdrop as one could find in the rugby world. The crowd was as a consequence emotionally charged with much expectation of being entertained with some exiting rugby.

The contrast to the Chiefs/Highlanders match however so stark that even the most ardent SA rugby supporter left the match -or walked away from his television set-with a poignant feeling of dissatisfaction.   

It was to put it straight a constipated push and gulp for air affair and only entertaining to those with a bit of a skewed psychological disposition. Only those who can find pleasure in watching someone else struggling with a turd that doesn’t want to pop, could have enjoyed it.

To be fair the match had its entertaining moments and its early season but what is really concerning is the quality of the South African backline play. For a country -and two teams- that pride itself in being masters of the set piece the line-outs (both teams) and the scrums (Stormers mostly) was a bloody disgrace; leaving the spectator with very little to enjoy. It was yet another South African forward arm wrestle which was so full off basic errors that even the traditionalist-set-piece-connoisseur had a hard time enjoying it.

I’ve read somewhere that Morné Steyn was ‘sublime’. Well his place kicking was back on par but his tactical play and ability to get his backline to entertain was far from sublime in my humble opinion. The playmaker in the Stormers side Elton Jantjies had a ‘shocker’. His place kicking cost his team the match and the Stormers backline showed considerable more flow, rhythm and penetration after Duvenhage slotted into the No10 berth.

Both teams showed a certain willingness to shift the ball wide and play a more expansive style but they looked like high school teams in comparison with what the Chiefs and Highlanders have dished up in the previous S15 match.

It is hard to pin point the exact reason why these teams was so ineffectual with regard to backline play but here are a couple of things I’ve noticed:

  1. Poor ball control at the rucks due to insufficient and/or ineffectual starter moves from set piece;
  2. The phase ball is coming back too slow and not in enough volume to allow the backline to get going;
  3. The pivots (No10) in both teams were either sitting too deep in the pocket and/or were too slow off the mark;
  4. Both backlines were too predictable; just moving the ball down the line to the wing or smashing it up in the midfield;
  5. No starter moves or set moves that brought players like Habana, Aplon, Kirschner and so forth into play too create holes in the opposition’s defensive line.

Hopefully things will get better as the season progress. I have good hope that the set piece, at least, will improve but have my doubts whether anything significant is going to happen with regard to backline play in both these two franchises.

Heynecke Meyer was under extreme pressure last year to come-up with a different (more expansive) game plan. The problem seems to be bigger than rigid strategic approaches. I got the feeling that these two teams tried to play a more expansive game but that the players still lack the necessary know how -if not skill- to make it work.

I think it is unfair to place all the blame for poor or mediocre backline play on the shoulders of the No10. Our outside backs seems to lack the depth and timing perception as well as ability to see and exploit gaps with delayed passes and running angles.

A few years back South African supporters would have been happy with this enactment but S15 has given us a glimpse of what is possible and we are getting increasingly unfulfilled with the state and style of South African rugby.

Todd Blackadder came out this week saying that the Crusaders –after intensive self-analysis- have set them the goal to play a more entertaining brand of rugby this year. This is, remember, coming from a team renowned for its open expansive style of playing. The All Blacks did the same a few years back namely set themselves a goal to play the most exiting brand of rugby on the planet.

My question is: Have any of the South African teams, ever, set themselves a goal to play the most exiting/entertaining brand of rugby in SA, the S15 or internationally?

The point is that if you don’t consciously decide to try and play attractive and expansive rugby it is not going to happen by osmoses. It is interesting that when the scrums went uncontested in the Stormers/Bulls match -and the arm wrestle stopped- both teams actually started to play better rugby.

He that is good with a hammer think everything is a nail, is an age-old truism. This seems to be the problem with South African rugby. South African teams are so obsessed with set piece and physicality that they can’t seem to move beyond the arm-wrestle.

16 thoughts on “Time to move beyond the arm-wrestle

  1. Comparing a Bulls/Stormers game to the Chiefs/Canes game doesn’t make sense. While the game was entertaining both the Chiefs and the Canes didn’t put a high premium on defence and number of runs on counter-attack from turnover ball and the soft tries are evidence of that.

    As to the Bulls vs Stormers, the Bulls looked a lot more prepared and polished for a Round 1 game while the Stormers struggled with their cohesion and ball control, especially in the first half.

    Morne Steyn played his game and played it well. He’s never going to be the bet running flyhalf but his kicking, both tactical and to goal, was superb – except for that drop goal attempt :).

    The Bulls forwards outplayed the Stormers and the Stormers’ lineouts were atrocious while at the back the Stormers struggled to find any fluency. Jantjies had a horror debut, particularly in his goal kicking. For first in his career he missed all his kicks at goal in a game where he had more than one attempt at goal.

    Overall, the Bulls played about as well as they could on the day while the Stormers were probably at their worst.

    The Bulls can improve by moving Mapoe to #13 and although Wynand Olivier had a good game I think Serfontein will bring more punch to their backline.

    The Stormers will improve as the new combinations gel and the players become more comfortable with the new gameplan.

    • Totally disagree with your statement that the tries resulted from lack of focus on the defence. The tries resulted from a team focus on not losing your attacking mindset while defending.

      My issue is the fact that both the bulls and Stormers did try and play more expansive but appear unable to do so. Saying you can’t defend well and play attacking rugby is in my mind just another excuse for the stop start ‘kickathon’ rugby SA teams are playing.

  2. I agree that the perception shouldn’t be an “either- or” issue but rather an “and” issue when it comes to playing for the win and being entertaining. It is the main franchisees; Bulls, Sharks and Stormers who should take as their mission to start practicing wide selection of creative back-line moves which then can be implemented to the Boks – we can’t expect that from Heyneke if the franchisees are not practicing these.

    However, the Bulls vs Stormers is for the both teams their most important game of the season, excluding semis and finals – whether they admit it or not. This meant both teams 4 first focus points were defense, defense, defense and then attack, but with making sure they still have always sufficient numbers under the ball to have the deference covered if there’s a turnover ect.. Essentially it was more about not losing than winning – and yesterday it was the difference of the kicking boots that did determine the winner. And as a Bulls supporter I’m obviously very happy of the result.

    Today when Sharks play Cheetahs I’m sure we’ll see a whole different brand of Rugby and I’m sure against a team playing open and expansive rugby, you’ll see much more flair from Bulls and Stormers as well.

    • Totally agree with your first paragraph. The chiefs was one of the best defensive sides last year but also scored the most tries. Sharks is also a good defensive unit with the ability to switch from defence to attack in a instant. It was not that the Bulls and Stormers didn’t try to run the ball it is that they looked so unable to do it that worries me.

  3. Still early days, I agree with Baylion – comparing the Highlanders v Chiefs to a Bulls v Stormers derby, doesn’t make sense.

    You don’t go to Loftus and play running rugby. The Bulls make sure of that by farming possession. You saw that in the first half – and when the Stormers had the ball they threw it away by trying flashy bullshit passes which resulted in unforced errors. The Bulls deserved to win that game. It’s still early days.

    ‘Sublime’ and Morne Steyn – I never thought I’d live to see the day! LOL!!!

    • Not comparing with the NZ teams sounds to me like just another excuse. A form of denial.

      The point is our backline play is way below par and having a defensive mindset is part of the problem. Wayne Smit said last year -after the Chiefs won the tournament- that they worked extremely hard at maintaining an attacking mindset while defending.

      The reason for the attractive running rugby by the highlanders and chiefs is not that they disregard defence. They play open fast rugby because they set attack as a priority and they keep that mindset even when they are defending. They will play attacking rugby at Loftus.

      I got the impression that both teams (Stormers and bulls) tried to play more expansive but were unable to pull it off.

      Last year almost every SA supporter complained about the Boks gameplan. How can we expect the boks to play open fast rugby if we stuck with defensive mindsets in the S15.

      I’ve been a WP supporter all my life but hate the rugby the Stormers are playing. Personally I don’t think the Stormers will ever win the S15 with Alistair Coetzee as coach.

  4. ‘Overall, the Bulls played about as well as they could on the day” didnt you watch the game if the bulls line outs worked as well as it should have with their unstoppable “maul”. the stormers would have been massacred

    hak hak stormers kak, bulls het stormers opgefok op loftus

  5. As a country and a rugby system we simply do not posess the players or the vision to be competitve at super or international rugby level.We have sacrificed everything to the apalling power game of charge and barge. We have sacrificesd every bit of skill and killed off any skill requirements all the way down to high school rugby where players are simply trying to emulate and copy the senior players. The coaches , adminstrators and players just do not have the skill or drive to play what we see from New Zealand and the top six nations rugby sides. Quite honestly I just can no longer sit through 80 minutes of the slop which is served up week aftr week in Currie Cup , Super and four nations tournaments. It has become a mindless , predictable bore and the results just speak for themselves. Morne Steyn this and Morne Stey that , well he is just doing what he is trained and directed to do so stop blaming him and look at the system which has been allowed to become barren of skil and variety .

  6. Really, not comparing a Chiefs v Highlanders is a form of denial?

    Comparing the Cheetahs v Sharks would suffice – if I do say so myself.

    I can count the type of rugby we saw in Dunedin – when involving the Bulls/Stormers – on one hand in 19 years of Super Rugby.

    That comment of yours has a stench of how unconnected you are to South African rugby at present.

    It’s all fine commenting from NZ but you are out of touch when you expect the Bulls and Stormers to play like NZ teams.

    Even when we lived in isolation, the playing fields were not entirely level with regards to All Black teams. The refs and racial selections always benefitted a racist SA rugby public.We played in that era, more or less, like we do today – and we won.

    Our Springbok team tried to play Highlanders/Chiefs rugby when Carel du Plessis was the coach.

    Where did that get us?

    Up shit’s creek, that Test series and the hiding in Auckland 1997 says it all – a premium on attractive rugby and fuck-all on defence.

    What happened here was you watched the match in Dunedin like all of us in South Africa, was disappointed and got inspired to bash our rugby after ONE round of Super Rugby.

    You know Mclook, I have a lot of respect but don’t diss our rugby because you saw one magical game involving the champions of Super Rugby – who were ‘sublime’

    • You wrote: “I can count the type of rugby we saw in Dunedin – when involving the Bulls/Stormers – on one hand in 19 years of Super Rugby.”

      That is exactly the point I want to make which you seems to be missing. Point everyone complained last year about Springboks gameplan expecting something different. Point how can the Springboks play different if the top SA franchises still play arm-wrestle rugby. Point – I’ve seen nothing different from the Bulls, Stormers, Cheethas and Sharks this weekend.

      The definition of madness has been proposed as: Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. The NZ franchises have revamped themselves over the last 5 years. The bulls and Stormers in contrast are still doing the same thing. Most annoying however is the fact that they look worse than school kids when they try and run with the ball.

      We are not going to win a S15 trophy with arm wrestle rugby. Yes we can make sure our traditional strengths are still on par and the best in the business but we need to be more versatile.

      Sometimes being outside something helps you to see it more clearly. That does not mean am not a Springbok or SA rugby supporter anymore.

      So by the way Carel du Plessis was on the right track and way ahead of his peers as a coach. They just fired him to soon.

    • Not sure what you mean with this sentence: “Even when we lived in isolation, the playing fields were not entirely level with regards to All Black teams. The refs and racial selections always benefitted a racist SA rugby public.We played in that era, more or less, like we do today – and we won.”

      If you are suggesting that our refs did the Springboks in then you have no idea what you’re talking about. If you mean the refs helped us then your point that we won makes no sense. We won the 1976 series under a cloud of referee controversy. There were some referee inconsistencies during the 1970 series as well. Most New Zealanders would argue that current won/lost stats is evidence that they were done in by referees during the Apartheid years.

  7. Here is what one commentator (Just for kicks) wrote about the Stormers/Bulls match on another website and I endorse it fully:

    I could write about this match till the cows come home, but I have neither the time nor the patience. Yes it was the first match of the season, and yes, there is a long way to go, and yes, the teams will improve. But we have to stop using this piss poor excuse at the beginning of the season. The teams are in a professional era. They have plenty of pre-season training and warm up matches. The should be hitting the competition running, as has been shown by the NZ, and to a degree, the Aussie sides. Not good enough in my book.

    First up, Morne Steyn deserved MOM. No one else came close – that in itself says a lot, because he was no more than average, and was just doing his normal job. Jantjies should take the credit for making Steyn look so much better. Elton looked well out of his depth in this match.

    Taking off our pink/blue or gay tinted spectacles for a moment, and looking at these two sides in the cold light of day, it looks like neither have moved on from last season. Both sides are still insisting on playing in a style that should have gone out at the end of the last decade. Neither side has moved on. Both are of the biggest and wealthiest unions in the country, yet neither seem to want to invest where it matters. The game has moved on, and whilst both side have a style of play that will always see them there, and there abouts, it is not enough to win the competition, or take the Boks forward.

    Stepping back a moment from Fridays match, and looking at in perspective, it was without doubt the worst match of the opening S15 weekend proper – eclipsed even by the Kings/Force, and who would have thought we could say that. The Bulls played the better rugby of two side playing pretty average to poor rugby. Neither of these two sides will go on to win this competition unless they change their style. Yes, either of them may top the conference log, but after that – no chance.

    I have stopped playing SuperBru. My reasoning? Simple. I felt that last year, my choice on Bru before the game was influencing how I looked at the game. This year, I want to try and take a step back and ask the question why the rest of the rugby playing world laugh at the styles played by these two teams. Why they know that we won’t win playing this style. Friday gave me a good insight. Not only was it not winning rugby, it is not nice rugby to watch. Tis isn’t the fast, flowing rugby that the powers that be are advocating, nor is it the type of rugby that the purists want to see. One side a jumping bean, and the other a very absorbent packet of cotton wool.

    The Bulls won this match because Steyn was on form, and Jantjies was not. Simple as that. I can’t see either of these teams beating the top NZ teams, and perhaps even going down to a couple of the Aussies lot. THe Sharks, with their first half performance should walk both these two sides. The Stormers, my team, look hopeless. They should beat the Cheetahs, but I say that only because they have a team of better depth, anything could happen on the day. The Bulls will beat the Cheetahs. That leaves the Kings. Both sides should beat the Kings, but again that is only because they have the bigger, better players. Game style won’t win it thats for sure.

    The Kings were a breath of fresh air. None of us expected that. Yes, they played the second worst team in the tournament, but that game plan with better players will see them go a lot further than the Bulls or the Stormers in the long run, mark my words.

    Both sides have the players. Both sides have the potential, but both sides are going backwards.

    Both sides need a better game plan. If that means that overseas coaches need to be brought in a la Sharks and Kings, so be it, because with what seems to be the ostrich headedness of our own coaches we simply won’t cut the mustard.

    Every product needs to adapt and change with the times. Rugby is no different. The Bulls and Stormers seem intent on bucking the trend. Sad. Very sad.

  8. Al, you are a good rugby man, but even when South Africa, as per her traditional strengths, has placed a premium on winning up front, they have still managed to produce good backs and backlines, capable of crafting well-constructed tries.

    We Kiwis don’t have a premium on running rugby talent. But if you don’t set the goal to have a good backline capable of winning a game if your forwards can’t, it will never happen. We Kiwis learned that the hard way when our rugby went defensive for the 20 years after Hennie Muller and Okey Geffin wrought their damage on us.

    So for 20 years, despite producing some of the greatest forwards rugby has ever seen (Tiny White, Peter Jones, Colin Meads, Wilosn Whineray, Kel Tremain, Brian Lochore, Waka Nathan, Ken Gray), we also went 20 years without producing a single world-class mid-field back – at a time South Africa was throwing up Wilf Rosenberg, John Gainsford, and Mannetjies Roux…

    That’s one of the lessons I draw from McLook’s website, rather than just nostalgia: Aim at nothing, and you’ll hit it every time…

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