South African rugby boasts players with the ability to lead the Boks into an innovative new era, but a change in mindset is required for this to become a reality, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It was rather strange to see headlines declaring that the Boks had been ‘snubbed’ as a result of their lack of nominations for the World Rugby awards. It’s hardly a snub for a team that has won just over 50% of their matches this year, lost to Argentina and Japan for the first time, and ultimately failed to achieve their World Cup objective.
The All Blacks, quite rightly, were the real headline act at the awards ceremony after a year in which their hegemony over world rugby was emphatically underlined.
A common misconception about the All Blacks team is that they are all about a ball-in-hand style of play. Often, their prolific kicking game, set-piece proficiency and defiant defence is overlooked amid the dazzling pieces of play that they seem capable of producing at the flick of a switch.
That lethal try-scoring strength was perfectly demonstrated in their quarter-final demolition of France, but it was also aptly contrasted by the manner in which they tactically outplayed the Boks in the second half of the subsequent semi-final, which was played in pouring rain.
It’s this all-round ability, adaptability and innovation that has made them rugby’s world leaders for such an extended period.
For much of this time, the Boks have employed a structured style of play that relies heavily on execution over innovation. It’s a brand of rugby that appears to represent something of a ‘comfort zone’ in South African rugby.
It was also striking to see a major Sunday paper quoting Heyneke Meyer in suggesting that South African players lacked the necessary skills to effectively execute any other style of play.
Yet when we look at the youth and talent that will remain available after the inevitable clearout of certain stalwarts post-World Cup, surely we should be able to expect – perhaps even demand – more upon consideration of the player resources at South Africa’s disposal.
This Currie Cup season, the Golden Lions played a brilliant brand of rugby that coach Johan Ackermann said was based on the type of players in his squad. They steadfastly settled on a style of play that the players were keen on embracing, and backed it to work for them.
Of course, their ultimate success has to be seen in the context of the competition and the opposition they fronted up against, and it certainly can’t just be copied and pasted at international level, but the rugby principles they’ve embraced over a lengthy period has been refreshing. After the final, vanquished Western Province coach John Dobson suggested it was a type of play that should be acknowledged as extremely healthy for South African rugby.
Ackermann, who is surely a future Bok coach in waiting, made this assertion: ‘I do believe in South Africa we have the ability to play any kind of style. We have big forwards if we want to smash and bash with the forwards, but we also have flair players if we want to play the flair game. If you put a South African player in a Barbarians side he can do everything that all the other players can do.’
So let’s dare to dream about what a force South African rugby could become if there was the means and willingness to establish that balance at all levels of the game, and where the Boks’ well-known strengths could be complemented by some dashes of dazzle.
In young players like Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel and Nizaam Carr the Boks have the ability to field a physical, dynamic pack for years to come.
In Handré Pollard, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel, they have a 10-12-13 combination that surely could go on to rival that of the All Blacks’ Carter-Nonu-Smith partnership. Rudy Paige looks like the heir to the Fourie du Preez throne, and then there are the exciting back-three talents of potential future Bok stars such as Warrick Gelant, Jamba Ulengo and Seabelo Senatla. Let’s also not forget that the likes of Willie le Roux, Pat Lambie and Jan Serfontein will all at least make another World Cup.
Johan Goosen (remember him?) and a host of other talented young South Africans also continue to impress for overseas clubs.
Of course, the Boks should never forsake their traditional comforts in search of an entirely attack-minded misconception, but surely we have the resources to blend innovation and game expansion with some of the strengths that set South Africa apart.
If the powers that be are brave enough, and willing enough to consistently back a subtle change in beliefs, a bright new dawn could surely become a reality rather than simply wishful thinking.
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