Boks must heed Super Rugby lessons

The Springboks must learn from the tactical and selection blunders that have characterised the campaigns of South Africa’s Vodacom Super Rugby franchises, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Stormers were smashed 39-19 by the Brumbies at Newlands this past Saturday. The upshot is that the only South African team to qualify for this season’s play-offs has been eliminated from the title race. For the first time since 2003, the Super Rugby semi-finals will be contested exclusively by Australasian teams.

In the buildup to that qualifying play-off at Newlands, the question was asked: do the Stormers deserve to advance to the knockout stages? Statistically, they were the seventh-best side in the tournament, having accumulated the seventh-most log points. It was only by virtue of the conference system that they were elevated to the top six.

The question was emphatically answered at Newlands on Saturday night. The Stormers were not only beaten, but outplayed physically and tactically by a well-drilled Brumbies outfit. They were not only eliminated, but put in their place.

Such has been the case for all five of the South African sides this season. The Lions have done well with what little resources they have, but the results confirm they did not do enough. The big three sides have been a major disappointment, not only in terms of on-field performance, but in terms of the coaches' selections and strategies. It’s hardly surprising to see the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers now making significant changes to their coaching structures.

South African rugby needs to learn from a 2015 Super Rugby campaign that will be remembered as one of the worst in this country's history. Changes are necessary, but it’s important the right changes are made. South African rugby shouldn’t move away from its strengths, but learn to harness them to greater effect.

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee made a damning admission in the wake of the loss to the Brumbies. He commended the Brumbies’ breakdown performance, and lamented the absence of an out-and-out fetcher in the Stormers' set-up.

This begs the question: How does a big franchise like the Stormers go into a Super Rugby campaign without at least two players with that necessary skill set? And how do the Stormers expect to win the tournament with a game plan that doesn’t incorporate an expert at the breakdown?

The Brumbies are almost South African in their approach. They are unrelentingly physical at the breakdown and aim to use the lineout as a launch pad. They possess an excellent kicking game. That kicking game is complemented by an organised kick chase, and the size and skill in the back three improves the chances of the Brumbies winning the aerial battle and regaining possession.

Nowadays, so many tries are scored from turnover ball. Consider the Brumbies' six-try performance at Newlands this past Saturday. They used the boot as a weapon, and forced the opposition into mistakes. They then turned those mistakes into scoring opportunities.

Earlier on Saturday, the Highlanders did a similar job on the Chiefs. A well-coached Highlanders pack dominated the collisions, and a multi-talented backline made their scoring chances count.

So much was made about the attacking play in that match, but what allowed the Highlanders to attack so effectively was the aggression of their defence and the accuracy of their kicking game. All Blacks and Highlanders No 9 Aaron Smith was particularly good in both aspects. With each season, he becomes more like South African legend Fourie du Preez.

The South African teams have used the tactical boot liberally this season, but they have not used it particularly well. This does not mean tactical kicking is no longer needed for success. Clearly the New Zealand Super Rugby sides as well as the All Blacks have proved that it's absolutely essential.

What's needed is greater accuracy, and perhaps a few of South Africa’s big franchises need to focus on recruiting players who can implement this strategy. South Africa needs to develop more halfbacks that can kick accurately and make good tactical decisions. They need back-three players with the size as well as the skill to win the aerial battle.

With the Stormers eliminated, South African rugby fans will turn their attention to the Boks and the coming internationals. There will be talk of how the Boks need to embrace a running game 'like the New Zealanders'. Some will cite the tries scored by the Brumbies and Highlanders in the recent play-offs as evidence that the Australasians are still light years ahead.

Except they’re not. They’re embracing a game plan made popular by the Boks in 2007.

Coach Heyneke Meyer would do well to gear his selections towards such a strategy, just as his New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen has done for the past three years. The Boks have the right game plan for the World Cup later this year, but success in that tournament will hinge on the selections as well as the execution of what can be a potent strategy.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli