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View from the couch

Part-time columnist and full-time rugby fan John OConnor returns this week with his unique 'View from the Couch' – as he continues with Part Two of the comparison between South Africa and New Zealand rugby.


On any given Saturday afternoon I know I will be on a couch.  Mostly it is my couch.  It could also be the couch of a mate, so long as his fridge is well stocked and his family well trained.  But whoever the owner of said couch may be; it is the view from the couch that is all important.

Last week's column generated a huge amount of debate – chief of which was a reluctance to accept the terrible truth of how far behind the Kiwis we are.  But mea culpa.  Two weeks ago I wrote a lyrical description of how the Boks v the All Blacks was the highpoint of all that is good and great in the game.  Only to discover that NZ's points differential in Southern Hemisphere championship rugby over the last 17 seasons was better than SA's by almost 1000 points!


* For the last 20 years South Africa has been vying with Australia for the position of #2 in world rugby while New Zealand has disappeared into the distance as #1 (see the undeniable stats succinctly stated in support of this statement in last week's column – link below).

* If we are going to “stick to the strengths of South African rugby” we are going to stand still and wave goodbye to the AB's as they disappear in the distance.  To think otherwise is to repeat the same action over and over again and expect a different outcome – the definition of madness anyone?

* Option 1: We decide across all levels of South African rugby that our goal is be #2 in the world and win the World Cup about every 3rd time it is played.  Not palatable to any Seffrican rugby fan, but at least grounded in reality.

* Option 2:  We aim to return to the top of the tree; a position that we held for 80% of the previous century.  This does not mean abandoning all that we do well.  It does mean that nothing that is done in SA rugby is sacrosanct or untouchable by change.  It definitely doesn't mean aping everything that the Kiwi's do.  That would only allow us to match them.  A combination of the methods employed by New Zealand to reach the top, the abilities unique to the Republic and innovation; will take us beyond the All Blacks.  But denial (or willful blindness) will get us nowhere.

So what do they do differently in the Land of the Wrong White Crowd?


Point One Unity of Purpose (continued)

This point was covered in detail in Part 1 but a few things have arisen since last week.

The contracting of S15 players has suddenly become a popular drum for the press (aka the Filth Column) to bang.  It has only taken 17 seasons to start calling for SARU to emulate the NZRU in this area.  In those 17 seasons, NZ teams have won the Super Rugby championship 11 times and the AB's the Tri-Nations/Championship 11 times.  South African successes: 3 in both competitions.

In NZ, however, it is not just the players that are ‘nationally' contracted.  The S15 coaches are also employees of the NZRU and not the franchises.  This is a vital difference because the coaches are not dependent on results only for their job security.  They are also evaluated on how they contribute to the national cause.

So a coach like Ian Foster retained his position even though for 8 seasons with him as coach the Chiefs were considered to largely have underachieved.  That is because his bosses also evaluated him on how he contributed to the national cause.  Each season he helped prepare some temperamental or injury-prone characters for the AB jersey – like Sione Lauaki and Sitiveni Sivivatu.

He is now in charge of the All Black backline; and they seem to be doing alright.

But that is not the most important issue missed by those banging away in both print and electronic media.  Underlying these decisions is the unity of purpose… everything is about making the All Blacks great; not the franchises.

The difference is best illustrated by two quotes.

When questioned about the issue of contracting South Africa's top 150 S15 players to SARU and not the individual unions; CEO Barend van Graan stated in the Sunday press that the Blue Bulls Rugby Union: “… would not support (that)… the players are our only asset…”

Contrast that with a quote from a Kiwi contributor to the message board after last week's column.  With thanks to Siwi_i: “… New Zealanders own our rugby. It is our game not just some pompous so in so with more money than the average bloke who gains control of committees. We, New Zealanders own the All Blacks.”

I would put it to you Mr. van Graan that the players are not your assets.  They are South Africa's assets.  And so is the Blue Bulls Rugby Union.

Point Two Size v Space

At some stage during the early 90's, the NZRU made a hugely worrying discovery – the numbers of junior rugby players in New Zealand were dropping.  For a country of only 4 million people that competes against nations 10-15 times their size, any drop in player involvement was extremely concerning; especially among the nursery of NZ talent.

So they investigated and found that the drop was chiefly due to a reduction among one population group – whites.  The 60's, 70's and 80's had seen large scale migration of Pacific Island peoples to New Zealand in search of job opportunities and better education for their children†.  Now many of those children were starting to play rugby and creating large scale panic among Pakeha (white) mommies, since there was a perception that these boys matured earlier.  So the mommies were actively discouraging rugby participation and telling little Johnny to play soccer where he wouldn't get hurt by the bigger Island boys.  This theory was backed up by the New Zealand Football union seeing an increase in their player numbers.

So what did the NZRU do?  They could have instituted an advertising campaign to educate all the worried tannies (aunties) and counteract what many would argue was a racist perception.  Instead they did something radical – they did away with age-group rugby and instituted weight-group rugby.

Since that time, kids in NZ have played against opponents within 5kg of their own weight up until the most senior or U19 level of school rugby.  This suited the NZ mindset because they are far more focused on space, while in this country we fixate on size.  So a generation of NZ rugby players have learnt to shift their hips, change the point of contact, run at the space instead of the opponent, look for where gap is going to be and move the ball there.

It was not the reason for their decision, but the result has been to reinforce a philosophy in Kiwi rugby – it doesn't matter how big the opposition player is.  If he isn't there, he can't tackle you.

In this country, we give the ball to the biggest player in the U9's and let him run as far as he can with 4 or 5 little limpets frantically clinging on to him.  We are then surprised when that big kid becomes a Springbok and simply drops his shoulder every time he sees a black jersey and promptly gets smashed.

If the Springboks execute Heyneke Meyer's game-plan perfectly – no missed tackles, no errors, pin-point kicking – they MAY beat the All Blacks.  There is no guarantee, because it also depends on the Kiwi performance.  If the New Zealanders make their tackles at the gain-line, field the high bombs and secure their own set-piece ball; the Boks may still lose.

However, if the AB's execute their game-plan to perfection they will definitely beat the Boks; because they are looking for space.  They do not need the opposition to drop the ball, fall off tackles or succumb to pressure and concede penalties in order to put points on the board.  The Boks could do everything that Meyer wants them to, and at some stage there will still be a black jersey with a gap in front of him.

As an example of this difference in mindset, let's look at a player that this weekend will become the 3rd All Black to reach 100 caps.  British Lions and Brian O'Driscoll fans may not agree with me, but I have always held Keven Mealamu in high regard.  He may have had some lineout issues (what hooker hasn't when playing against Victor Matfield) but he has been an incredibly dynamic player for NZ.

Compare him to Bismarck du Plessis.

Mealamu is nowhere near the same physical specimen.  Who is?  But whereas Bismarck simply drops his shoulder and tries to run over the tackler; Mealamu steps off either foot, shifts his hips or pivots.  Unless he is blindsided, Mealamu ensures that the tackler never gets to line him up with the shoulder.  At best, the tackler always has to make the tackle with the arm.  As a result Mealamu always seems to, if not beat, then at least get his arms past the first tackler so that he can unload or at least place the ball well.

Imagine what a player, du Plessis would be if he had learnt this skill.

Coaches in SA pick players based on size and neglect skills training, that's why we get fly-halves at Currie Cup level who can't kick with both feet, players who can't pass both ways and players (both backs and forwards) unable to exploit overlaps††.  The perfect example would be Morné Steyn, Kirchner and Habana butchering a 3-on-2 in the AB 22 in the first 5min in Dunedin.

What odds would you get on Carter, Dagg and Corey Jane botching the same scenario?  

And they are all products of weight-group rugby.

Coming up in Parts 3 and 4

Excellence vs Winning

Evolving vs “Sticking to our Strengths”

Putting it all together

† – There are now more people of Island descent living in South Auckland than all of the islands of the South Pacific

†† – Many thanks to Jaccals for permission to plagiarise his perfect pronouncement


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