The view from the couch

Thu, 06 Aug 2009 00:00
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This week John OConnor's view takes in the two Tri-Nations tests between South Africa and the Land of the Wrong White Crowd, and includes a valiant attempt at perspective ? very difficult to do when you are bouncing up and down on the couch like a kid who has seen Christmas.

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.

A good mate of mine is a glorious pessimist, a 'glass-is-half-emptier' with a surreal sense of humour (which saves him from just being a drag). He informed me that should the Boks, with so much in their favour, fail to beat the Kiwis in Bloemfontein; then he would no longer watch while El Mustachio remained coach. This is akin to an assurance from a touring Australian rugby team that they will not trash a single hotel room or taxi. So in honour of his fierce determination not to get carried away, this week the view includes a valiant attempt at perspective – very difficult to do when you are bouncing up and down on the couch like a kid who has seen Christmas.


Part One – Did the Mad Hatter arranged this shindig?

My perfumed steamroller recently travelled back from Auckland. It took her 26 hours, door to door. The All Blacks finished playing the first Tri-Nations test (at Eden Park in Auckland) at 21.30 on a Saturday night. They would have woken up at about 03.30 Sunday morning to make the early flight to Sydney.

The rule of thumb is that one day per hour of time-difference is required to recover from jet lag. New Zealand is currently 10 hours ahead of SA. The Kiwis had less than seven full days between the Wallabies and the Boks – at altitude.

Who draws up these schedules? Do they get paid for it? Are they hiring in Wonderland?

Part Two – But perspective looks both ways.

It was only six years ago that the All Blacks made a very similar journey to the Highveld where they played (at altitude) a Bok team that included Bakkies, Matfield and Juan Smith. The final score at Fortress Loftus: New Zealand 52 – South Africa 16.

How the mighty have risen.

Part Three – ... all who enter here

Having done my impersonation of calm and reasoned, I now abandon all hope of emotional detachment to say: WOW! The Kiwis may have come back strongly in the second half, but for 40 min in Bloem there was a green tide that came at them in waves. And don't forget, the Seffricans outscored them by 8-3 in the last 10 minutes. And then there was Durban.

I cannot ever remember entering the last ten minutes of an All Black test knowing that the Boks had it won. More than that – hoping for the whistle NOT to blow so we can put a few more on the board.

A Bok team swamped the All Blacks.

It seems surreal, yet so satisfying, that I'll say it again: A Bok team swamped the All Blacks.

Part Four – The JFK moment

I was extremely blessed to be invited to the Durban test. My kids were also fortunate because at that price buying a ticket would have required one of them going out to work. My eldest is only six, but then it was a Bok/All Black test.

When Morné Steyn went over for his try I turned to my mate and told him to remember that moment. The Boks were clinical in the way they exploited the weakened AB scrum for that score; a ruthlessness shown by great teams.  I truly believe that was the point when they took on the mantle of the world's best team.

No more happy only as the underdog; no more awed by that black jersey; no more thinking the world is out to get us so we better circle the wagons. Not windgat (windy bum i.e. arrogant), but confident. Not perfect; but very, very dangerous.

Sat 1st August 2009, against the old foe in Durban, in the 36th minute of the first half – remember that moment.

I was on the grassy knoll.

Part Five – For the first time in history...

Ruan Pienaar is a very special talent. There has been reams written about his missed shots at goal in Bloemfontein, but in general play he conducted the game like a maestro (albeit behind a dominant pack). All of the tricks were there – accurate kicking into space, taking the ball up, attacking the blind-side and putting his line away. At times the AB's were left chasing shadows. It was easy to see how Eddie Jones could compare him to Stephen Larkham.

Morné Steyn has taken 21 shots at goal since making his international debut against the Lions. He has missed twice for a scarcely believable 90% success rate. In his first five games he has won a test series against the Lions with the boot and set the record for points scored in a game by an All Black opponent. In Durban he also set the record for the most points ever scored in a test where only one player has scored all his team's points.

It is hard to believe that SA has gone from not knowing where to find a No.10 to this embarrassment of riches. And to think that the first choice for the Lions series (before he injured his knee) was rumoured to be Butch James.

It's raining tens.

Part Six – A jersey of any other hue

There has been an incredible amount of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth coming out of New Zealand. It speaks of a lack of perspective. Since beating the Ozmob they have only lost two games – in the Republic, to the world champs, by nine and 12 points.

Yes, there were a few examples of brain fade from the men in black – things that happen when under extreme pressure. But by the last 15 min of the Durban test, one thing stood out for me that has not been touched on in any of the match reports – the incredible pride that is placed in that black jersey.

Any other team on the planet, when faced with the match scenario in the second half in Durban, would have been pumped by the Boks to the tune of 45+ points. The All Blacks stayed in that game by sheer force of character and their incredible ability to fall back and still ruck the ball successfully. They may not have been able to buy a line-out for love or money; yet even when the game was gone they still didn't lie down and they tackled themselves to a standstill.

All the angst we have seen from the Kiwi press and public shows how easily all of us can take our teams for granted. The All Blacks showed a great deal of courage in Durban. For that, their fans could and should be proud of them.


Part One – Are we starting to see the whole buffet

In the last column I spoke of our desire as Seffrican supporters to see both structured play when required, as well as an ability to attack when the opportunity presents itself. In the last two tests the Boks have shown they can adapt and also hammer at a weakness when they identify it. At Vodacom Park the point of attack was varied, but from the moment that Stephen Donald dropped the first "Garry-Owen" at ABSA Stadium, it was going to be a long night for the Kiwis under the high and wet ball.

Now the Ozmob await at Newlands. They will surely have prepared themselves to field the tactical kicking game the Boks evidenced in Durban. But this Bok team has more than kicking and chasing up their sleeves.

Saturday will be the last home test for nine months and we could see something very special (so long as Jean de Villiers doesn't kick the ball over the dead-ball line when faced with an overlap in space. Did anyone else pull their hair out when that happened in Bloem? And who else wished for AD Jacobs at that moment – come on, you can admit it.)

Part Two – Try, try and try... but when

We have been told, ad nauseam, by the 3rd Estate that test rugby is not the Super 14. Defences are tight and try-fests are not to be expected; unless it is, say, New Zealand against Italy – sorry, bad example.  But even so, three Tri-Nations tests in 2009 have so far seen only 7 tries from three of the best backlines around.

For all the fact that modern defences are very well organised, I believe that the style of play we are seeing is being affected by kick-off times. Games are starting at 19.30 in New Zealand in order appease advertisers in South Africa with a 09.30 broadcast time. It's all very well to have evening matches in February in New Zealand during the S14, but in the middle of winter? Even games in the Republic are being played at 17.00 when dew is more likely. Surely there is little difference to our Kiwi brethren between games broadcast at 01.00 (15.00 South African time) or those shown at 03.00.

Wasn't it great to see the Lions tests played in sunshine? New Zealand does have sunshine in winter... doesn't it?

Part Three – A prophet in his own land

This week I read a Kiwi journalist describe the current Bok line-out as arguably the best the world has ever seen. The single most significant reason for that statement is the man voted the players' player of the tournament at the '07 RWC – Victor Matfield.

Matfield is viewed with strange ambivalence in many parts of South Africa. North of the Jukskei River (which separates Johannesburg and Pretoria, and is also known as the Boerewors Gordyn [Farmer's Sausage Curtain]) he can just about walk on water and women literally swoon at the flick of his brow. Yet the rest of the nation has long held reservations about his willingness to do the hard yards like his soul mate, Bakkies.

Well it's time to wake up to the fact that in Matfield, South Africa has one of the greatest locks of all time – certainly the greatest threat to the opposition line-out in rugby history. But that priceless ability (and not all of it is athletic) must not be allowed to drain away. We all hold thumbs that Matfield will still be playing in 2011, but when he does retire, every effort must be made to transfer that intellectual capital to the next generation of Seffrican locks.

There is an undeniable truth about our Victor: he has given a lot of hookers sleepless nights.

Part Four – The elephant in the room

One of the reasons I write this column is to point out things that we see from the couch that are for some reason ignored in the mainstream media. One of these blatantly obvious, nose-on-your-face issues has finally been pointed out by El Mustachio, and hats off to him – the Wallabies collapse the scrum.

They have been doing it for about 10 years, especially on their put-in. As soon as they realise they are under pressure... down it goes. The spectators know it and the players know it. The only exception has been the refs and for some reason, the press.

But the cat is out the bag. And judging from the Ozmob reaction, he's whining like jumbo has stood on his tail.

"I see Ruan and myself as two pretty similar players. He's a good tactical and goal kicker, so nothing should change if he came into the side. I know he struggled in Bloemfontein [with his goal kicking], but we've all had off days. We know how good he is and the beauty of this side is that it doesn't depend on one player like me to win matches. Today was a good day for me, who says Ruan can't have a similar game in Cape Town?" Morné Steyn

Humility becomes you, young man.


"A commanding Tri-Nations win in Bloemfontein was further evidence that South African coach Peter de Villiers is making good his promise to give the Springboks an All Blacks flavour…  [When he first got the job] de Villiers made no secret of his admiration for the All Blacks' game, particularly their expansive approach, and believed that could be moulded into a South African style whose success had for so long been built around a 10-man game…  The first signs of that coming to fruition came on last season's end of year tour… When you bring together the best of the South African and New Zealand games it has the potential to be extremely potent, perhaps a style that can't be beaten when it matters most… The Boks' more expansive approach doesn't always come off. But it has backline defences now second-guessing rather than getting ready to turn and chase long kicks downfield as they have had to predictably endure through the years. There's an air of unpredictability to go with the strongest South African traits and hats-off to de Villiers for attempting to break the mould." Duncan Johnstone after the first Bok/All Black test in Bloemfontein –

"There's no doubt (the Boks) have been improving over the past period of time and that probably culminated in them winning the World Cup in '07. But they've certainly moved their game forward from there as well… Probably where Springbok teams in the past may have played really direct football based around their set-piece totally, these guys have the ability to use the width as they see it. They have the ability to sting you off turnovers so there's a lot more variation in how they can do things in attack." Stirling Mortlock after the second Bok/All Black test in Durban

Shock and horror… positive remarks about El Mustachio… recognition of a game plan that has moved forward. Wait, don't panic, it's a false alarm. They're only foreigners.


During the S14 I read an amazing statement by Jacques Botes. Although he has ostensibly been the Sharks' open-sider for some time, he said that he is still learning his position because he has only been playing as a true fetcher since the 2008 Currie Cup. That's when a Kiwi, John Plumtree took over as coach of the Sharks.

Now add the view expressed by some, that the day will come when the Boks miss the physical presence of Schalk Burger. What do you get? You get the creeping realization that Heinrich Brüssow is not just up against the incredible Schalk for his position; he is challenging the entire Seffrican philosophy of flank play.

There are only two fetcher flanks worthy of the name in South African rugby – Brüssow for the Cheetahs and Deon Stegmann for the Bulls. Both of them have caused havoc among Seffrican opponents. Substitute the names Smith and McCaw and doesn't that sound familiar?

Schalk is an amazing player, no doubt about it. But the All Blacks and the Wallabies would still select a fetcher even if they were playing in a mud bath during a snowstorm north of the Arctic Circle.

Who else would get the beers?


Bismarck du Plessis caught Brendon Leonard in a big tackle in Bloemfontein and then pulled Leonard to his feet. It was a small act of good sportsmanship but it really struck home. Why? Because it has been so long since we last saw that kind of goodwill between opponents.

More please.

By John OConnor