View from the couch: No happiness in this laager
After a long hiatus the View from the Couch returns this week with an in-depth, spurious analysis of all that is not being said by the pundits; but is being seen by the punters. Part-time contributor and full-time fan John O'Connor entertains us.
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 last three weeks have not been pleasant for any Seffrican supporter. We have slowly morphed from battling to concentrate at work come Friday morning [I wanted to start the braai (barbeque) on the Thursday before the first All Black test], to not wanting to talk about rugby with our colleagues – energizer bunnies to bears with sore heads.
We are all clinging to the thought that Jake White's team had a horror Tri-Nations in 2006 and went on to win the big one in '07. We are all trying not to think of P Divvy's first year in charge where we returned from the Antipodes only to lose to the Kiwis in Slaapstad* and the Ozmob in Surf City. Fortunately the next three tests are all on the Highveld.
Part One – History repeats itself
A year out from the last World Cup, a curly-haired, prodigiously talented 19-year-old made his debut for the Sharks at fullback. Unavailability and injury saw him shifted to flyhalf for a Currie Cup game played during a torrential downpour. In a veritable monsoon, his brilliance shone like a beacon.
The following year, Francois Steyn played a crucial part in South Africa lifting the Webb Ellis trophy – kicking a long range penalty in the final.
If it's raining in Durban come five o'clock on Saturday, I am going to get very excited.
Part Two – The elephant in the room
Like an addict at his first meeting, I have to screw up the courage and say it. Here we go: "My name is John and… Pierre Spies should not be playing eighthman for the Boks."
I feel like a burden is lifted. But wait. There is more: "Neither should Ryan Kankowski."
Shock! Horror! I hear the cries resound especially from the other side of the Jukskei River** and in Surf City. But it is time to face some facts. Unless you run straight into Spies, and I mean chest to chest, he is not going to tackle you back. You will cross the advantage line and he may even miss you all together. If you think this is an exaggeration, go view the last three Bok tests. Watch for the tackles that Spies missed that not only cost the game, but possibly the series. Kankowski is not much better.
There is no doubt that Spies is a physical specimen of note. The urban legends abound as to his test results when measured for speed, explosive power and aerobic fitness. His awesome strength was clearly evident at the Brisbane test. At one stage he picked up Salesi Ma'afu, the Wallaby hooker, with one arm and tossed him backwards like a rag doll. But all that physical ability doesn't change the fact that he is not a test number eight.
Spies played wing all through his formative years and it shows. Give him space and let him run onto the ball and he is a colossus. But that doesn't often happen at test level for any forward – unless you are playing the weaker teams. Ask him to grind it out in the tight exchanges; to drive forward in close contact with or without the ball; to fight for the ball on the ground, and he is nowhere.
Kankowski does not match Spies for raw power but his pace is right up there and he appears to have better hands and a better step. In fact he appears to be a centre playing at 8, rather than a wing.
Compare both these players with Gary Teichmann. As good as he was, Teichmann was nowhere near the natural athlete that Spies is. Neither did he have the afterburners of Kankowski. But in the close quarters of a test against New Zealand, he would somehow give you go forward, that precious momentum.
But maybe there's not just one in here, maybe it's a herd!
Part One – Conventional wisdom is dangerous
For some years now it has been stated again and again in the press that Seffrica has a wealth of loose forwards. Go shake any tree in Bloemfontein and two or three world-class loosies will fall out; or so they say. And if every rugby writer says so – ergo it must be true.
The truth is we have an abundance of superb blind-side flankers.
Seffrican rugby has a deep-seated and historical belief in the theory of playing flankers as left and right, rather than open and blind-side (just ask Jake White if the fetcher must get him a beer). This is such a fundamental part of our make up that we failed to note the extreme concern in New Zealand last year when we started selecting a premier fetcher-flank for the first time.
A cursory check of the results of SA vs NZ prior to 2009, even under Jake White, shows how dominant the black jersey was. New Zealand had no problem disposing of the Ozmob in the last Tri-Nations – as per usual. But Brüssow changed everything when it came to the Boks. No more unimpeded, quick ball for the AB's, no more unfettered access to our ball for McCaw. It was a whole new ball game.
So now that Brüssow is out, where do we turn? There are only two, true fetchers in the Republic and now Stegmann is injured. It is a cruel blow for a player who would surely be in the running for most test teams bar SA and NZ. Jacques Botes has been playing as a fetcher for less than two years (his words) and that means we have to go back to Francois Louw, also a retreaded blind-side (albeit a very gifted one).
What is even more concerning is the well of number eights has run dry. We have discussed the shortcomings of Spies and Kankowski and from the couch it appears that Duane Vermeulen may be a very good S14 player but a touch short of international class. Maybe that is unfair. Maybe Vermeulen deserves a crack at it – he will surely tackle more than Spies, and who would have thought that Kieran Read would blossom as he has done.
But there is one world-class option available at eight… Schalk Burger. The Stormers purchase of Vermeulen may turn out to be the Boks loss because it scuppered the plan to play Schalk at #8. He has all the makings of a great in that position. He is not an out and out ball-carrier but he is good at it; likewise for competing at the breakdown. And he lives to tackle.
So instead of the commonly held view, we see that we have only two top-class fetchers and one eighthman.
Conventional wisdom can be dangerous – just ask lemmings.
Part Two – History repeats itself… again
I wrote the following in September 2009 after the Boks lost comfortably to the Ozmob in Brisbane (again):
"The lack of ability to change game plan showed that) Morné Steyn is not yet a general. He needed to take control, overrule the calls if necessary and drive his team over the line… Forget goal-kicking, forget getting the backline away. The #10 jersey at the World Cup will go to the player who is not content to just be a foot-soldier."
This observation has been given even more weight with the loss of Fourie du Preez and the overseas move made by Ruan Pienaar. Steyn must take charge at Soccer City. A year ago it was raining tens, now we could be facing a drought.
Part Three – Happiness is not found in a laager†
Since Plato was a pikkie††, rugby fans have thought the ref was biased against their team. We remember the instances with fierce anger where we wuz robbed and conveniently gloss over the occasions when the ref swayed way too far in our favour – e.g. the Bulls vs the Crusaders in the recent S14. But I am deeply concerned by the prevailing wind of paranoia that is sweeping through South African rugby.
There is no doubt that there has been some diabolical reffing in the last few tests. Yes, McCaw should have been yellow-carded (as should have Pocock). Yes, the All Black committed all sorts of nefarious acts at the breakdown (and Bob Dwyer has been bleating about it).
Yet in all three Bok losses, the better team won. Bakkies, Rossouw and Fourie committed incredibly stupid acts - it defies logic that Boks with 50 test caps could be so irresponsible. And we played poorly, especially in Brisbane.
If we as a rugby community start focusing on the refs and start buying into the idea that the world is out to get us, we will really be in trouble. We will take our eyes off the real issues. Fix the discipline; play clean, hard, fast, excellent rugby and the ref problem will cease to be an issue.
Once in the laager, no-one moves forward.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"Rugby may have many problems, but the gravest of these is undoubtedly the persistence of summer." Chris Laidlaw – former All Black and current journalist
LIES, DAMNED LIES AND THE STAT OF THE WEEK
If a prop is sin-binned, at the next scrum while he is cooling his heels, another forward will have to go off to allow a specialist front row player on. This is done to prevent injuries.
When Kiwi prop Owen Franks was sent to the sin-bin for a shoulder charge in Saturday's test against the Ozmob, his brother and fellow prop, Ben, got stuck in to his warm up so he would be ready when called on to scrum. He needn't have bothered.
In the 10 minutes Owen was off, not a solitary scrum took place – a quite staggering stat. How the game has changed.
* Cape Town
** The Jukskei River traditionally separated Johannesburg from Pretoria
† Forming a laager is the Seffrican version of circling the wagons, hunkering down, and digging in – ‘coz them Injuns is coming.
†† Small kid