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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 Three 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.

The past two weeks have seen this column divert from its normal format to focus on the differences between South African and New Zealand rugby.  It has proven to be a much deeper well than I realized, with unplumbed depths only revealed thanks to the insightful contributions of some deep-thinkers on the game.  

I would recommend you keep an eye on the comments section below.  Not because I try to answer each query (which I do), but because the quality of debate has been such that you may learn more there than reading this column. That is not a common occurrence on the interweb and I extend my thanks to all those who have contributed to the debate so far.

But there are some issues that have arisen over the last fortnight that, as usual, have not been mentioned by the press (aka the Turd Estate) and cannot pass without comment.  As a result this week's column is something of a hybrid.


One How soon we forget

As Seffrican rugby fans we are very quick to cry foul regarding the two sets of standards in operation regarding sanctions for dirty play – one for perpetrators from the Republic and another for the rest; especially Wobblies and those from the Land of the Wrong White Crowd.  But we also forget that prior to 2004 we were considered the dirtiest rugby players in the world.  

Remember the infamous '99' call of the 1974 Lions?  It was only instituted as a plan because they expected to be punched off the ball, especially in the warm-up games.†  So they arrived in SA expecting dirty play and weren't disappointed.

One of the most cowardly things I ever saw on a rugby field was Burger Geldenhuys's round-house right from behind that broke Andy Dalton's jaw during the New Zealand Cavaliers vs. N Transvaal game in 1986.

And there were the more recent cases, such as Johan le Roux's imitation of Hannibal Lecter and the excesses of the Straeuli era; including the flying head-butt at Twickenham by (of all things) the Springbok captain – Corné Krige.

Then along came Jake White.  His first team talk is now the stuff of legend†† but one of his stated objectives that is seldom mentioned, was to put an end to off-the-ball rubbish.  Because he realized it was both morally reprehensible and professionally indefensible.  Not only did it mean that you risked letting your teammates down by being sent off, but it also meant you had lost focus on the tasks you were being paid to do.

The chief disappointment since that jubilant Parisian night in 2007 when John Smit lifted the World Cup; has been to see the disintegration of discipline in the Springbok ranks – epitomized by Schalk Burger morphing from rugby's ultimate hard-man to what appears at times to be a crazed berserker.  Quite frankly he was lucky to only get an 8 week ban for attacking Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald's face in 2008.  He should have got 6 months at least.

Jake White is viewed a lot like marmite in South Africa – you either love him or hate him.  But his greatest contribution to South African rugby was not winning the World Cup.  It may well be dealing with stupid thuggery in the Bok jersey.

Two Fair is fair

It may be anecdotal and not stand up to analysis, but the last 2 months of internationals have seen an increase in this stupid thuggery.  And where the fans do have a point is that the rugby judicial system is a complete farce.  The citing commissioners and judicial officers appear to operate by whimsy.  It is a joke, and not a funny one.

I was fortunate this week to come across the 2010 MCC Colin Cowdrey Spirit of Cricket Lecture given by Imran Kahn.  In his presentation, Kahn stated that an essential part of improving behaviour on the field was ensuring fairness – in the case of cricket the key to this was neutral umpires.

So maybe we should not be surprised that players' behaviour appears to have worsened.  Because there is very little fair to be seen.


One Not this year Laddie, not if you use your head

Which brings us to this year's South African Rugby Player of the Year Awards.  View from the Couch has been horrified to see various rugby pundits make a case for Eben Etzebeth to receive the top accolade.  Etzebeth has all the physical attributes, talent and potential to be Springbok great but in his debut year and in only his 6th test, he copped a two week ban for trying to give Wallaby Nathan Sharpe the Glaswegian kiss.  This moment of lunacy meant he was ineligible for the test in Dunedin where he was sorely missed.

What kind of message would it send to make Etzebeth South Africa's player of the year? He shouldn't even win the young player of the year.

Two And the winner is…

If JP Pietersen hadn't broken his thumb in the S15 final, he would probably have walked the top award such was the standard of his play to that point.  But he missed the entire Southern Hemisphere Championship and 90% of the Currie Cup.

That injury means that the award should come down to two men (in every good sense of the word): Keegan Daniels and Bryan Habana.

Keegan Daniels has now lead the Sharks to 3 consecutive tournament finals in the 15 months since John Plumtree first appointed him as captain for last year's Currie Cup.  That's some captaincy record for a rookie.  He is Pietersen's only contender for SA's S15 player of the year, and should the Sharks win the final on Saturday he will probably be SA's Currie Cup player of the year.  He has also shown an exemplary attitude since he was told by the Bok management to go play with the other dwarves.

But my hat is removed for Bryan Habana.  The amount of vitriol and abuse he took from Seffrican fans over the last two years was enough to crush the spirit of many a man.  But he didn't buckle.  He didn't take the easy money, and reduced pressure, on offer in Japan or France.  He wanted to play with the best.  And he has proved once again… he is one of the best.

Part 3 of the comparison between Bok and AB rugby


* New Zealand has steadily and relentlessly left all other rugby nations, in their dust over the last 20 plus years (for incontrovertible proof of this statement, check out the stats from Part One – link below).

* If we as a rugby nation continue with business as usual, including “sticking to our strengths” in style of play, then we will not close the gap.  If it hasn't worked for the last 23 seasons, it's not going to work.

* Option 1: We accept reality and decide that our goal is to be the #2 rugby-nation in the world and win the world cup about every 3rd time it is played.

* Option 2:  We decide that nothing else but #1 is acceptable – a position South Africa held for 80 years.  There will be no sacred cows.  Everything is open to review and revision.  This does not mean abandoning all that we do well nor does it mean simply trying to be a carbon copy of the Kiwis.  That would only have the potential of matching 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.


Point One Unity of Purpose

This point was covered in detail in Parts 1 and 2 – links below.  But it would be remiss of me to point out yet another example of how all decisions in NZ are based around what is best for the All Blacks and not the provinces/unions/franchises.

This weekend saw Keven Mealamu play his 100th test for the AB's – only the 3rd player in history to reach that milestone.  So it was fascinating to hear from Robbie Deans how close NZ came to losing Mealamu.

Ten years ago, Deans was on the coaching staff of the AB's, under head coach John Mitchell.  “I can still see it clearly.  We had a selection meeting… and in the initial (Super Rugby) draft for 2002, Kevvy didn't have a contract.  It astounded us,” he said last week.  So the NZRU stepped in and ensured that the Chiefs offered Mealamu what was then a Super 12 contract.

What would have happened in South Africa?

Point Two Size v Space (continued)

But the story continues.  Last week in Part 2 we spoke of Seffrican rugby's fixation with size vs. NZ's with space.  And Mealamu was used as an example in comparison with Bismarck du Plessis – one a physical specimen the match of any player; the other no comparison physically, but always dynamic and penetrative by looking at space instead of looking to run over the tackler.

At the end of 2002 that same All Black selection panel sat down to choose a squad for the end of year tour.  “At that stage the concerns over (Mealamu) were size and there were signs he wasn't such a good scrummager but we said he had to find a place for this bloke because he's got a future”

“And the rest,” Deans said, “is history.”

So it's ten years later and a Bok end of year squad is due to be named.  And just like the AB's in 2002 years ago, there is an issue around who to take as the third hooker.  Heyneke Meyer has lost his first and fourth choice hookers to injury (du Plessis and Tiaan Liebenberg) and his third choice hooker (Chiliboy Ralepelle) is not fully match fit.

But there is a hooker available for selection with 3 Bok caps.  He is considered the best hooker in the English Premiership, if not in Europe.  He is 1.80m (5'11”) and 97kg to Mealamu's 1.81m and 106kg, and far more dynamic.  Yet he is considered too small in Seffrican rugby.

Will Meyer select Schalk Brits?

Don't hold your breath.  He'll be told to go join Daniels and the others.

Coming up in Parts 4 and 5

Excellence v Winning

Evolving v “Sticking to our Strengths”

Putting it all together

† – In the words of the Wales and Lions fullback JPR Williams: “Willie John (McBride – tour captain) was a senior figure and he said, 'Look, I've been out here twice before, we've played pretty well but we've been intimidated and we're going to have none of that. If anybody gets into trouble, (shout 99 and) you all get involved wherever you are and you all hit the nearest South African to you, the referee can't send off the whole team' and that was what Willie John said to us.”

†† – He walked in and said: “Welcome to the team that will win the next World Cup.”  Camp Staaldraad and the humiliation of the thrashings at the 2003 WC were so fresh in the memory that some of the players weren't sure they even wanted to be Springboks.  In fact, to a man, the Boks thought he was nuts.


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