SA teams can offer more

The inability of South African franchises to play complete rugby is a coaching issue, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

When is the mentality within our Super Rugby going to change? When is skill going to be celebrated? When is a local derby going to showcase a contest dictated by the ball, by the use of width and by an appreciation for space? When is a match going to be complemented by rugby intelligence?

I found the derby in Durban between the Sharks and Bulls torturous to watch. It was brutal and physical. It was a yawn.

The strength of South African rugby is not in the Springboks managing to beat the All Blacks every fifth Test. The game’s strength should be in the quality of our Super Rugby franchises. The evolution should be in how our players can manipulate space and offer the unconventional when physicality is nullified.

The Bulls' breakout try was an example of good rugby. A scrumhalf, in Rudy Paige, read the situation in seeing space to attack, despite being in his own 22m area. He worked the blindside, drew the defender, offloaded to winger Francois Hougaard, ran the support line, received the ball back, drew a defender and passed back to Hougaard, who had an easy run to the line.

It looked spectacular in the context of the contest but it was just another moment of good rugby when weighed against most of New Zealand’s derbies.

It was an example of what is possible with the right attitude and an intelligent approach. For the rest, all Durban produced was one big guy smashing into another.

South Africa’s players, genetically, count among the biggest but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted they are the thickest, because they aren’t. We have some very clever rugby players.

The Sharks were a disappointment because they offered nothing on attack. That’s a coaching issue.

They played with defensive pride, especially in one-off situations, but for a team with no realistic chance of winning the competition and with nothing to lose, they played like one with everything to lose. That’s a coaching issue.

The Bulls were predictable, in that every attack was built around physicality and the hope of the one-off runner breaking the first tackle. Again, that’s a coaching issue.

Surely, there is more to South African rugby than brutality in the collisions? Of course there is. We’ve seen it on occasion in Super Rugby and with excellent Springbok teams that have been brilliant with ball in hand.

There has to be an expectation of a better offering, from the rugby supporter and from those who play the game.

The Lions, this season, have been the exception with ball in hand, but they have limitations within the quality of squad player and if the Lions had a few more X-factor players they’d be a top-four contender. They are getting it right because the coach is getting it right.

It’s not like we haven’t seen South African players wow audiences with an ability to play complete rugby. It’s that it’s all too rare.

Forget the one-off wins against the All Blacks and the World Cup for a moment and focus on what should sustain the South African game in the four-year cycles between World Cups. Think Super Rugby.

It is possible, but only if the approach is endorsed and promoted within the coaching structures.

There is an obvious lack of imagination and acumen within our Super Rugby coaching elite. There are also limitations.

Our coaches, when their players are challenged beyond the physical, aren’t as good as they’d believe or as smart as their employers would want to believe.

Our schoolboy rugby prospers. Our U20s, in the last five years, have been applauded for their skills as much as their physicality. Our sevens squad is among the most skilled on the international scene. But it all falls flat in Super Rugby when strength plays strength and there aren’t the mismatches we see in domestic competitions like the Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup.

Take Jan Serfontein, as just one example. He was so good when playing for the SA U20s. He beat defenders with footwork, with skill and with natural attacking talent. He was voted the best player when SA’s U20s won the tournament in South Africa in 2012.

Serfontein, the Super Rugby and Springbok midfielder, is now a player whose write-ups applaud his tackle count and his defensive prowess. There is so little of the attacking brilliance that made him the standout junior player in the world.

Attack-minded players make mistakes because they make plays and that seems to be the biggest evil in South Africa’s Super Rugby approach because the applause tends to go to the player who doesn’t make a mistake because he is coached to boss the collisions. The X-factor footballers are discouraged because of coaching limitations.

Our players are no less inferior to anything in New Zealand or Australia, but our coaches most definitely are not in the same class.

Which of South Africa’s five Super Rugby coaches would be in demand in New Zealand? None. Which South African players would make New Zealand’s regional teams? Plenty.

When South Africa’s Super Rugby coaches are the most sought after in the competition, only then will our game reflect the player potential and only then will the log reflect the true strength of South African rugby.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images