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.

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