Brain must complement brawn

Poor decision-making was at the heart of a disappointing weekend for South African rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The problem with South African rugby at the moment is that many of its teams deal in absolute philosophies. Teams are either too conservative and employ the kick-chase tactic relentlessly, and often aimlessly, or they are bent on running from all parts of the field, no matter the situation.

Things need to change. No South African team is going to lift that Super Rugby trophy until it strikes the right balance between attack and defence.

The Chiefs have won back-to-back titles by playing a balanced brand of rugby. While they are celebrated for their attack, they were right up there with the best defensive teams in the competition in 2012 and 2013.

So too the All Blacks. New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup through a gritty defensive effort, and that defence has been largely responsible for a 26 from 28 win record in the subsequent two seasons.

But nobody would label the All Blacks defence-oriented. It's true that their defence and exemplary kicking game creates opportunities to counter-attack, and that their players convert these opportunities into points. Excellent ball skills allow them to do so, but one should not underestimate the influence of their chief decision-makers in this respect.

Before the 2013 Test season, there was no other team capable of threatening the All Blacks' supremacy. That was until Heyneke Meyer's Springboks started to play a more balanced game.

Last season, the Boks varied their play a lot more. They worked hard to maintain their defensive and kicking strengths, but added the counter-attacking element.

The results were patent, as they not only finished the year with an 83% win record, but scored far more tries in the 2013 Rugby Championship (23) than they had in 2012 (10).

Decision-makers like Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn have proved more important than ever. The addition of somebody like Willie le Roux, however, has added another dimension to the Boks' attacking and counter-attacking play.

What’s been obvious in recent seasons is that predictable teams do not prosper. And if we’re to apply that to the current Super Rugby tournament, it’s plain to see why the Stormers and Cheetahs are ranked 14th and 15th respectively. One team has, until last Saturday, favoured a one-dimensional defensive strategy. The other has opted for all-out attack.

While the log positions of the Stormers and Cheetahs confirm that these are teams in trouble, the other South African sides have also battled for balance.

I agree to a point with former Bok coach Nick Mallett when he says that the ball skills of South Africa's players are inadequate, but then there is also the issue of decision-making. In 2014, many of the South African sides have failed to vary their play, and have been punished accordingly.

And while the extremists from Cape Town and Bloemfontein illustrate the point, there have been other examples of one-dimensional play from the Bulls, Lions, and even the Sharks.

The Bulls have kicked a lot of ball away this season. It’s a fact that the best teams kick the most, and that a territorial strategy is a winning one, but accuracy is still everything.

The Bulls have kicked aimlessly in 2014. They are missing key decision-makers at 9 and 10, players such as Du Preez and Steyn who are capable of assessing the situation and then executing efficiently.

The Lions of 2014 have looked more balanced than the class of 2012. But inexperience has affected their decision-making, and the execution has been poor of late.

The Sharks started the season as favourites to win the South African conference and overall Super Rugby title. They’ve lost a few players in key positions, and this has affected their efficiency in terms of executing a game plan that does embrace balance.

Jake White guided the Boks to a World Cup title in 2007, and many will remember that side for its defensive feats, not to mention the tactical kicking of players such as Du Preez. However, that campaign also witnessed some outstanding running rugby, and players like Du Preez showcased their less-celebrated talents in the pool game against England, which the Boks won 36-0.

White has sought to implement the same core values at the Sharks in 2014. There is a big focus on defence and the Sharks have conceded the fewest tries in the tournament. There is a drive for territory, and there is also an intent to win the gainline battle. White’s back-three selections of late also indicate a willingness to counter-attack.

What’s been missing over the past few weeks has been consistency of execution. The Sharks will point to the number of injuries as disruptive, and will argue that they ultimately got the job done against the Lions and Cheetahs. But they should know that sooner or later, the inconsistent decision-making and execution is going to cost them.

The match in Durban on Saturday was cringe-a-minute stuff. Much of the game was played behind the gainline, and many of the Sharks players forced the pass. It was scrappy and there was a slew of handling errors. Individuals were guilty of mistakes, but what was really disappointing was that nobody took responsibility in terms of reorganising the attack.

Tim Swiel is a case in point. The young flyhalf did a lot of good things, but he also made a number of errors. His decision-making needs to be better and more consistent if the Sharks are to improve in the coming weeks.

Despite their injury problems, the Sharks still have all the weapons to be a success. It’s just a matter of using those weapons more intelligently.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli