Expect more of the same

There’s been little in the South African Super Rugby challenge and indeed the Springbok coach selection process to suggest that the national side will be any stronger in 2016, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The recent Super Rugby clash between the Lions and the Crusaders may well be a sign of things to come. The Lions, who were playing at Ellis Park, threw everything they had at the New Zealand side, and still came up seven points short.

The balance that characterises the top teams in this competition has been sorely lacking in the South African sides. The Lions have thrilled with their running lines, offloading skills, and impeccable finishing. Unfortunately, they have often frustrated with their defensive frailty and poor decision-making under pressure.

On Friday, the Highlanders employed a balanced game plan to beat a spirited Force team in Dunedin. The Highlanders, who won the 2015 tournament by playing a similar brand of rugby, struck the right balance between running and kicking. Their attack was superb. Their defence was good. The quality of their kicking and chasing was world-class.

The Crusaders and Chiefs have been similarly impressive in recent rounds. The former will travel back to New Zealand this week having beaten two of South Africa’s best teams in South Africa. The Chiefs put six tries and nearly 50 points past the Brumbies in Canberra. While their attack was sublime, the quality of their defence and the accuracy of their kicking contributed in no small way to their success.

One cannot help but feel that the Australasians will continue to reign supreme in the Super Rugby playoffs. Further down the line, can we look further than New Zealand as likely winners of the Rugby Championship?

What plan does South Africa have to challenge that dominance? In October last year, outgoing coach Heyneke Meyer said that he felt sorry for his successor. Without centralisation, without a system in which the national coach and the franchises agree upon a game plan and philosophy, the Boks will continue to be second best.

The new coach, however, will face a different sort of challenge. It’s taken nearly four months for SA Rugby to determine, and subsequently to ratify, their preferred candidate. The new coach will only be unveiled on 12 April, as SA Rugby looks to finalise his contract as well as the new management team.

Allister Coetzee is expected to be announced as the Bok coach on 12 April. The Boks’ first Test against Ireland is on 11 June. To say this is an inadequate period of time to build a team culture and install a new playing philosophy is an understatement.

The new coach should have been appointed at the beginning of the year. By late January, he should have been visiting the franchises and explaining his vision for South African rugby. The new coach should have had his plans in place, that is plans to develop the game plan, to win matches, and yes, even to meet SA Rugby’s lofty transformation targets.

It’s believed that the six Super Rugby coaches will work with Coetzee on the matter of player management. One would hope that this is more than a rumour, and that the franchises heed the Bok coach’s plea to manage national assets better than they have done in the past.

One would also hope that there is more discussion over tactics and game plans and what areas require development if South African rugby is to grow. Attack is but one of the areas which require attention. As has been evident in the past six weeks, the defence and kicking also require sharpening.

And yet we will see no benefits from that relationship in 2016. Plans that Coetzee and the franchises agree upon at this late stage will surely only come into effect in 2017.

Indeed, there may be other plans that may have to wait until next year before they are fully implemented. With less than two months to prepare for Ireland, Coetzee would be unwise to make drastic changes to the current set-up. Just like Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer before him, Coetzee will be nervous about losing his first series at the helm.

Expectations should be tempered ahead of that series, at least as far as the Boks’ game plan is concerned. Expectations should not be great ahead of the Rugby Championship, which kicks off in four months’ time. That tournament is not as far away as it seems.

In a sense, New Zealand are already six weeks into their preparations for the Test season. The performances by the Kiwi teams in the Super Rugby tournament have delighted thrill-seekers and purists alike.

They are evolving, and obtaining key wins in the process. In August, the best players will go into camp with the All Blacks knowing that they are already at an advanced stage of their preparations.

Sadly, the opposite will be true of South Africa’s elite players.

Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

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