Black and White
EXCLUSIVE: rugby365 columnist Ethienne Reynecke explains why the Lions is an example that rugby has evolved.
Growing up in the conservative Afrikaans community, you get told that things are either black or white. No in between.
This is based on the Christian religion teaching that if you are neither hot or cold, but lukewarm, you will be spat out.
So majority of the people involved in SA Rugby was pretty much indoctrinated to have a mindset that it's either one way and not another. It was quite evident in South African rugby and the way we played.
But, as times changed, so did the people involved - especially in the management and coaching positions, where we evolved.
As we all learn over time, gaining experience everyday through diverse interpersonal relationships, things are never black or white.
We spend majority of our time in the grey zone when it involves multiple parties and issues.
The comedian Chris Rock perhaps sums it up the best: "I've got some s**t I'm conservative about, I've got some s**t I'm liberal about. Crime, I'm conservative. Prostitution, I'm liberal!"
So to bring this down to a rugby level, let's talk about the perceived ideas about how certain countries play.
I want to do this to emphasize the fact that teams who embrace the "liberal" as well as "conservative" aspect of the game tend to be the successful ones.
Brendan Venter, the coach that brought success to many teams, like Saracens, has an absolute obsession with wine cultivation and the different types of cultivars for different wines.
He took that concept over to rugby and always spoke about the "blend" between playing expansive and conservatively.
In South Africa, the perceived idea by the majority of the population is that New Zealand players have far more skills than South African players. Kiwi teams run every ball and never kick the ball.
Let's look at some stats to put that in perspective.
The Highlanders was the 2015 Super Rugby champions.
Want to take a guess who was the team that kicked the most out of hand?
Yip, the Highlanders was the leaders in that department, with almost a hundred kicks more than the second placed Sharks - 484 kicks out of hand. And 202 of these kicks out of hand was box kicks, or the No.9 kicking a contestable kick.
It was a tactic that was evident as well this past Saturday against the Lions in the semifinal.
The Highlanders took no chances inside their 22-metre area. They often exited by using the Aaron Smith box-kick to get up to their 10-metre line from line-outs.
Talking about Aaron Smith. He was top of the stats for kicking out of hand in 2015, with 159. Another Highlander in the top five was Lima Sopoaga, with 127.
The team that made the most tackles in 2015? You got it. The Highlanders.
And it's not because they played the extra two games - the semifinal and Final.
They were 400 tackles ahead of the third- and fourth-placed Cheetahs and Brumbies.
So blending this in with their attack and stats of being third for offloads and fifth for clean breaks, you can see where I am going with this.
Kicking a lot means that the majority of the time the opposition kick back on the likes of Ben Smith, Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo.
And if your tactical kicking back is not spot on, you get punished.
Most Clean breaks in 2015 - Naholo (27). He was also second for hit-ups (173).
Ben Smith produced the third most offloads, with Osborne fifth.
I think you are beginning to get the picture.
They play you tactically until you slip up with a bad kick , then release these beasts on you.
Not to liberal, but not too conservative - just a beautiful blend.
So let's move on to the past weekend's action - the Hurricanes versus the Chiefs and the Lions against the Highlanders.
The two games produced 106 points. I would say that constitutes an action-packed weekend.
And let's be honest, it was two games of phenomenal standard.
Although the Chiefs did not score a try, there was numerous chances that went a begging on the goalline.
The reason why those last passes didn't go to hand could be attributed to the Hurricanes' staunch defence. Or there could be another factor to it - the physical and mental side.
The chiefs were a bit slow of the mark and you could see it in defence as well.
In my next article I am going to try and dissect this a bit more.
Taking the whole season into consideration, the Hurricanes coaching staff are technically ahead this year.
It seems that between Chris Boyd, John Plumtree, Jason Holland, Richard Watt and Dan Cron there are some seriously, seriously sharp technical analysts dissecting the opposition.
Case in point was Victor Vito's try in the 47th minute.
As much as Justin Marshall on commentary wanted to claim it was superb vision and reaction by Victor Vito, you could clearly see that Victor Vito knew precisely what Brad Weber would do on defence at scrum time.
Normally the defending scrumhalf follows the ball that was fed into the scrum and try and disrupt the opposing No.8.
Brad Weber initially follows the traditional defence, but then as the ball gets to Vito, he sprints back to fold around the scrum to the open side.
Vito anticipates this as the coaching staff obviously picked up on it during their analysis.
He picks up and spins to the blind side with Brad Shields blocking his movement for a split second.
This causes Taleni Seu to pick up on Vito breaking blind too late and Vito's speed does the rest. No chance it was just instinct.
The Hurricanes' defence is also proof that the coaching staff has fine-tuned everything to the tee so that the players can focus and have the correct mentality to be ruthless in defence.
Something players can't do if they have too many other distractions - like trying to remember gameplan, plays, etc. The muscle memory is firmly in place.
Looking at the stats we see something interesting in both games in terms of the "blend".
The Chiefs had 121 ball carries compared to the 91 Hurricanes.
The Chiefs had DOUBLE the number of clean breaks.
The Chiefs had DOUBLE the number of offloads.
The Chiefs had DOUBLE the number of passes.
The Hurricanes made 42 more tackles than the Chiefs.
The Hurricanes kicked out of hand 17 times compared to the Chiefs' 10.
So it's evident that the historically "conservative" aspects of rugby had the decisive influence in the match.
Or is it just a case of defence and tactical kicking being just as important for the "blend" as attack?
Moving to the Lions versus Highlanders game.
You can't deny individual stand-out performances. Some players are riding a wave of confidence currently - Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Elton Jantjies, Francois de Klerk, Jaco Kriel, Malcolm Marx.
The list is endless!
The stand-off in the Final this week - with players like Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea, Victor Vito and TJ Perenara - can get you more excited than a groom on his honeymoon night.
But let's focus on the stats again.
The Highlanders made 168 passes to compared to the Lions 125
The Highlanders had DOUBLE the number of offloads.
Clean breaks were even.
The Lions made 14 more tackles than the Highlanders.
Looking at the kicking game, this is where the hustle comes in terms of the "blend"!
The Lions kicked the ball only four times more than the Highlanders out of hand.
The Lions caught 22 kicks, compared to the Highlanders' nine.
Following me here?
Kicking is generally seen as a negative in rugby. Seeing that the Lions kicked more than the Highlanders, but the Highlanders only caught nine kicks, means that the Lions used it as an attacking tactic.
Let's look at an example how they used it as an attacking weapon.
In the 54th minute, De Klerk kicked out of hand from his 22. Lionel Mapoe plucked it away from Marty Banks in the air and handed it off to Andries Coetzee. From that subsequent ruck, Elton Jantjies cross-kicked it for Jaco Kriel. He gathers it, gave Elliot Dixon the stiff arm and the Ellis Park crowd erupted!!
Kick, offload, pass, kick, score - some s**t I'm conservative about, some s**t I'm liberal about - Blend, Blend, Blend!
In Both semifinals, the team won that had the least amount of possession, least amount of passes/carries/offloads, most kicks and most tackles.
But it seems that the teams that won had the "blend" right - combining attack, defence and tactical kicking.
Great rugby only exist in the grey area.
You can't be Black or White.
By Ethienne Reynecke
* Ethienne Reynecke is a decorated hooker who played for, amongst others, the Lions, Stormers, Saracens, Connacht and Pau - which has seen him feature in 160-odd first-class matches.