SA must maximise strengths

The Sharks’ results against the best of the Kiwi opposition, as opposed to that of the Lions, asks the question of who is getting it right, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

The question is not aimed at spectator appeal or at supposed advancement of skills or of playing a style that speaks to a global audience and wins South African teams friends.

It’s what wins matches or puts South African teams in a position to win matches.

The Springboks, in the past decade, have been the only team to trouble the All Blacks, which doesn’t mean they can boast any significant advantage because the statistic of 14 wins in 53 Tests since 1992 hardly represents success.

But as far as international rivalries go, the only team to have enjoyed 14 Tests wins against the All Blacks since 1992 has been Australia – and they have played them more. The Springboks, despite the heavily-weighted loss ratio, have run the All Blacks close and Heyneke Meyer’s team of the past four years (on average) lost 27-18 against the greatest team in the history of rugby union.

Meyer’s Boks won only one in eight, but in most of those matches, the All Blacks knew they were in a battle. I am not advocating coming second or being good losers, but I am suggesting we look at what works for our players and for our psyche and then what can be evolved.

The Lions have been riding a domestic high for the past 24 months. They have built a team that plays a fantastic brand of rugby and many have described them as close to a New Zealand Super Rugby team (in playing style) as you could ask for. But should we be asking for that, or should we be asking for a more intelligent rugby approach – one in which we never lose what is a South African strength, and from that, we build.

The Lions, when they have wanted to commit to the South African stereotype of physical intent first, were ruthless in dismantling the Sharks in Durban. It was probably their best rugby display in how they got the game plan right, the application to that game plan and how comfortably they gained the arm-wrestle ascendancy and then squeezed all strength from the Sharks’ challenge.

This is a physical Lions team, who can also play wonderfully attacking rugby. However, they have failed themselves too much this season when it comes to beating the best of New Zealand. The general review of the Lions, among traditional media and on social media platforms, has been all purple praise.

The opposite has been true for the Sharks, whose management and players continue to take a beating for an ultra-defensive mindset and a game plan structured around turning defence into offence.

The Lions were thrashed 50-17 at home by the Hurricanes. They also conceded 40-plus points against the Crusaders at home and close to 40 against the Highlanders in Dunedin. There was the celebrated famous first win against the Chiefs in New Zealand, and three of the four defeats have been emphatic because the Lions clearly were second in style of play against the free-flowing Kiwis. In those defeats, the traditional strengths of South African teams never factored and the Kiwis were all the more impressive for not being stifled through a physical defence.

The Sharks, despite only having 30% of the ball, were leading the Crusaders 14-12, with 10 minutes to go and lost by five points. They lost by five points to the Blues when only two points separated the teams with a minute to play. They also lost by two points to the Chiefs and limited them to two tries, after the New Zealanders had scored 43 tries in eight matches. The Sharks’ solitary win (15-14) was against a Highlanders side reduced to 14 players for an hour.

It could be argued that the Sharks, with a bit of good fortune and the rub of the green, could have won all four matches against the Kiwis, which then tells you there is value to an approach aimed at maximising traditional South African strengths and not simply playing a supporting role in New Zealand’s all-out attacking spectacles.

Those quick to applaud the Lions and condemn the Sharks should review the respective clashes with New Zealand opposition and ask which has the potential for greater reward in Super Rugby and in the Rugby Championship.

It’s a question that has merit and needs constant debate and discussion if South African teams – and by extension the Springboks – are to ultimately find the balance between the dour and dynamic.

Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images