The big breakdown puzzle
SPOTLIGHT: South Africa’s coaches are wrestling with the same poser that puzzled their counterparts in New Zealand and Australia in the early stages of their domestic competitions.
The directive from refereeing bosses to be stricter on the enforcement of the breakdown laws – as opposed to applying new laws or varying interpretations – resulted in a sharp increase in breakdown penalties.
In New Zealand the average penalty count was 30 per match for Week One of Super Rugby Aotearoa and in week two that was down to 25.
Australia, Super Rugby AU, produced a similar picture – 28 penalties in Week One and 24 in Week Two.
It was not surprising to see high penalty counts in the opening round of South Africa’s Super Rugby Unlocked this past weekend.
There were 29 penalties in the Sharks’ 19-16 win over the Lions, 26 in the Cheetahs’ 53-31 demolition of the Pumas and 28 in the Bulls’ 30-23 squeaker against Griquas.
Refereeing bosses were adamant that officials should ‘apply the laws’, rather than interpret them.
Both Bulls coach Jake White and Sharks counterpart Sean Everitt admitted there needs to be an “adjustment” from the players and teams.
White said unlike in the past – or the pre-lockdown period – the side that was carrying the ball was not rewarded as much in his team’s win against Griquas at Loftus Versfeld this past Saturday.
“At one stage when [we had] 65 percent possession, we were still giving penalties away,” White told a post-match virtual media briefing.
“That does not mean it is right or wrong,” the 2007 World Cup-winning former Springbok coach said.
“It means we have got to find a way in which the trends are going.”
He pointed to what happened in Australasia as an example of how teams can and must adjust.
“At the beginning of the New Zealand Super Rugby tournament, all the teams that were carrying the ball were getting penalised and at the end of the competition, all the teams that were tackling were getting penalised,” White added.
“That is part of what coaches are going to try and find out: ‘What do the refs want?’
“Do they want us to have the ball or not?
“Sometimes when you do not have the ball, it is probably better because the team carrying the ball gets penalised for coming from the side, cleaning from the side, falling off their feet or sealing it off. The converse is also the same.
“The refs are going to blow the tackler and the defensive side for being offside, and then it is better to have the ball.
“The bottom line is to find the trend.
“I thought [referee] Marius [van der Westhuizen] blew different to the way we were refereed in the first game,” he said of officiating in the SuperFan pre-season outing.
“Again, it does not mean it was right or wrong.
“Referees have different ways of interpreting things.
“I thought the Griquas went really hard at our breakdown, but I’ll sit down and look at ways we can get quick ball.”
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The Sharks coach, Everitt, also felt that it was not a change in law that resulted in the high penalty count.
“It was just that they were going to focus on the correct procedure at the breakdown and the correct process,” Everitt told a post-match virtual media briefing after his team’s win in Durban.
“[Referee] AJ [Jacobs] got it right a few times,” he said, adding: “You must remember there was a lot of pressure on the refs as well.
“They have not blown a game in seven months, so it is not easy for them.”
He said both teams ‘went hard at the ball’ in Durban.
“I think the correct teams were rewarded.
“Some of the players in individual areas at the breakdown were quite obvious. There was a double movement on the ground – we got pinned once, they got pinned once.
“It is something that the players have to learn and the players have to get used to.”
Everitt added that if players don’t adjust the penalty counts will remain high.
“The double roll is obviously something that was coached in Super Rugby, which has been taken out of the game and rightly so.”
He said the attacking breakdown is about quick reaction by the players.
“You can work on the reaction of it and the ball placement,” Everitt said, adding: “Obviously only one dynamic movement [is allowed] now.
“Being the law and being monitored as such, it does lead you to risk of losing the ball on the ground.
“We have got to react better and work harder on that one dynamic movement.
“At the same time, we discussed the laws with the refs every Wednesday and they said this week that they would reward the jackler – the guy going in to steal.
“It was certainly the case in our game [against the Lions].”