SA rugby must evolve

The Springboks’ need to focus on ball-carrying basics points to an inherent problem in South African rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

An interesting theme has emerged over the first couple of weeks of the Springboks’ three-match Test series against Ireland. Allister Coetzee has repeatedly emphasised the need for the Springboks to improve their body position when taking the ball into contact. He’s referred to it as the Boks’ ‘shoulder battle’.

In the first Test of the season at Newlands, the Boks’ ball-carriers were held up on a number of occasions when they were too upright heading into the collisions, while the Irish did extremely well to target the ball and often successfully ripped it free in contact.

The Boks’ ball-carrying body height served as a focal point in the lead-up to the second Test at Ellis Park, and yet particularly in the first half, a number of balls were once again lost in the collisions as Ireland stopped the Springboks’ upright ball-runners on the gainline.

In the second half, the Boks carried the ball with far more urgency and energy, improved their body height in the tackle area, and with better support and an increased work rate from the players cleaning out at the rucks, Ireland began to tire and defensive errors entered their game.

However, one has to wonder why it took the Boks more than 120 minutes of rugby to finally execute this fundamental basic of the game with the necessary accuracy and execution. Is it a case of the Boks slipping back into bad habits that are manifesting at lower levels and then being exposed in the Test arena?

Coetzee has suggested it goes deeper than this, and that should be a cause for real concern.

‘In South African rugby, because our players have huge bodies and physical frames, we are generally not good when it comes to our body height. This is not only when carrying [the ball], but also in the contact areas. It’s a work-in-progress and something we need to focus on, not just at international level, but at schoolboy level.

‘It’s such an important part of the game, gaining momentum and stopping momentum,’ he continued. ‘If your body height is not lower than your opponent, he will gain momentum, and if you are not lower than him with the carry and target his hips, you won’t get momentum. It has an influence on your breakdown work, quick ball is prevented and the opposition gets an opportunity to slow it down.’

It seems simple enough, but one point that certainly rings loud and true is Coetzee’s reference to the physique of South African players, and the consequences thereof when it comes to coaching at various levels of the game.

How many players begin their rugby development in an environment where size is prioritised over skill? How often is a mentality of smash 'em and bash 'em championed over an endorsement of maybe going around 'em? I’d suspect this is the case more often than not.

And while I’d hoped to avoid making reference to New Zealand rugby in this context, it remains relevant and certainly widely acknowledged that at schoolboy and youth levels, there is a Kiwi culture of encouraging and coaching the use of footwork, handling and offloading skills. It’s certainly not just about picking a player because he’s big and physical and instructing him to run over the opponent in front of him.

In South African rugby, something has to change whereby we begin to focus on the need to establish a better balance between making the most of the natural physical attributes that often set our players apart, and supplementing this with the ability to offload, run the correct support lines and achieve the correct body height in contact.

So far, in the series against Ireland, the Boks’ ball carrying has been one of their weaknesses. They’ve often lost the gainline battle, conceded a host of turnovers and failed to generate quick ball.

Just as decisively, though, their ability to finally sort out this aspect of this game – indeed with the help of some impactful substitutes – was the key point of difference during the latter stages of Saturday’s Test at Ellis Park, which saw the Boks complete a remarkable comeback.

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that there are some fundamental flaws that are increasingly being exposed in South African rugby. There has to be meaningful endeavours to address the problems at the source rather than look for a quick-fix at the top.

Players and coaches from schoolboy level onwards desperately need to be 'upskilled' and encouraged to alter certain innate philosophies of just backing size over substance. We need to begin a process of bettering ourselves as a South African rugby entity. In New Zealand, England, Argentina and Japan, their rugby teams are getting better and better, while in South Africa, it’s become more and more apparent that we aren’t quite as good as we think we are.

It’s time to evolve …

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Craig Lewis