View from the Couch
View from the CouchSHARE
Part-time columnist and full-time rugby fan John OConnor returns this week with his unique 'View from the Couch' – as he begins the promised analysis how rugby is run in SA and NZ
THE VIEW FROM THE COUCH
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.
Of all the columns I have written, this has been the most difficult – a comparison between Bok and All Black rugby as promised last week. Not because of a lack of content. The details, stats and discussion of the differences between Seffrican and New Zealand rugby were all there. It was a case of not knowing how to start; how to articulate the overwhelming sense of disillusion and frustration experienced by fans on Saturday.
Those feelings were perfectly summed up by my brother-in-law's reaction during the match between the Boks and the All Blacks staged at Soweto's Soccer City. The Gentle Giant – a superb lock in his playing days and dubbed Big Dan by my two sons, Cane and Abel – got up and left with 20 minutes to go, saying: "I can't stand any more of this. The difference (between the Boks and AB's) is so obvious. The problems are so obvious. After so many years why does it never change?"
It may be an urban legend, but isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome? For the last 20 years, we have vied with Australia for the position of #2 in the world of rugby. And over and over again we hear rugby scribes and respected coaches talk about "sticking to the strengths of South African rugby."
Well, if the goal is for South Africa to remain at #2 or #3 in the world, then they must continue sticking to those strengths. And maybe that is the goal for those in charge of rugby in South Africa.
But they have seriously misjudged the view of those of us on the couch, those of us who buy the tickets. We know that in this country we have the athletes and the rugby talent to not only challenge New Zealand but supplant them at the top of the tree. And we are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. In fact, that is a severe understatement. We have had a gutsful.
So we are going to depart from this column's normal format of examining the things not spoken about in the press aka the Turd Estate – looking forward and back; stat, quote and thought of the week. Honouring the commitment made in the last "View from the Couch", for the next three weeks this column will be examining the fundamental differences between Springbok and All Black rugby.
And the biggest differences are found off the playing field.
Please note: In no way am I saying that we should emulate everything that New Zealand does, doing what they do, exactly in the manner that they do it. That would only allow us to match 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.
Then let us, first of all, ensure that denial is no longer an option.
THE UNDENIABLE STATS OF SUCCESS
* John Smit's win percentage as captain – 64%
Richie McCaw's win percentage as captain – 90%
Over 100 matches, the difference is 26 wins. Considering that this year the Boks will play 12 tests, this difference translates to more than two years' worth of test matches.
* Since 2004, New Zealand has lost matches against four teams – South Africa, Australia, France and the Barbarians. Since 2004, South Africa has lost matches against eight teams – New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, the Lions and Leicester
* Since the advent of the yearly Southern Hemisphere test match competition (formerly known as the Tri-Nations, now the Rugby Championship) the All Blacks have won the tournament 11 times, winning 56 games, losing 22, for a points differential of +652.
In the same period the Boks have won the tournament 3 times, winning 30, losing 46; for a points differential of -340
I must admit, these stats shocked me when I compiled them. The full impact is a devastating blow to any delusion that traditional Springbok strengths have made us a force in Southern Hemisphere rugby – they have led to us being weaker than the All Blacks to the tune of almost 1000 points!
* Since 2004, the All Blacks have not lost a test match against Northern Hemisphere teams on their end of season tour. † In this period they have won three Grand slams in three attempts.
Since 2004, the Boks have lost eight test matches against NH teams on their end of year tour. They have had two attempts at the Grand Slam and failed on both occasions.
There can be no argument brooked that New Zealand are some flash in the pan. As much as it may grate to acknowledge, they have been the pre-eminent team in rugby for an incredibly long period of time. In fact, their run of success is scarcely believable – a record that is almost unprecedented in any team sport played anywhere in the world.
So what do they do that is different?
Part One – Unity of Purpose
There is one characteristic that differentiates New Zealand rugby from every other major rugby-playing nation on the planet. Everything they do, every decision that is made and every action that is taken… is geared towards making the All Blacks great. Nothing else comes before that purpose.
And where there is unity, you will find blessing.
This commitment is found at all levels of rugby organization throughout the Land of the Wrong White Crowd. There is a systemized coaching plan from under-7 level through to the All Blacks. It ensures that every year, as he/she grows, a player's skills are added to – layer upon layer. Players as young as 10, will do drills that can be seen in an All Black practice. I can recall Stefan Terblanche and Rassie Erasmus attending an Under-14 coaching clinic during a tour to New Zealand in 1999 and seeing 14-year-olds practicing skills that would be beyond some of their Bok teammates.
A result of this coordinated approach to coaching is that very seldom are debutants completely out of their depth when they pull on that black jersey – by the time they reach the national team, they are the finished article. Their individual skills are up to scratch and there are only minor adjustments required to fit into the team pattern.
In South Africa there isn't even a systematic coaching program within the individual provinces, let alone across the whole country. Hence players graduating to the Springbok ranks and the Bok coach saying that he has to develop them. Hence players making their debuts without basic skills. Hence Bok backline players not being able to finish a 3-on-2 overlap – catch, fix the opponent and pass.
But there is no greater outworking of this united purpose in New Zealand rugby, than in the pro ranks.
Many New Zealanders don't even realize the debt of gratitude they owe to Sir Jock Hobbs, who tragically passed away this year at the age of 52. In 1995, Sir Jock set the foundation for professional rugby in New Zealand and it is due to him that all NZ Super Rugby players are contracted to the NZRU and not to the individual unions or franchises.
As a result you will never see a situation in NZ such as played out at the Sharks in 2011 with both first and second choice Bok hookers in the same Super Rugby squad. John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis would have been assigned to different Kiwi franchises because that would have been the best thing for the national team (but not for the Sharks). And what we saw last year was not new. Not by a long shot. In 1996, the exact same scenario was seen at the Lions with both James Dalton and Chris Rossouw fighting for the Lions and Bok #2 jersey.
There is nothing new under the sun, my son.
But to me, the touch of genius was the decision to contract the New Zealand Super Rugby coaches to the national union. Each coach is appointed (and replaced) by the NZRU. So they are not only judged on their results – like every other coach in every other country – but also by their contribution to the national cause.
That is why we should not be surprised that New Zealand has had fewer injuries to key players than the Boks or the Wallabies. Neither should we be surprised that their players are fitter – finishing stronger than their opponents in every match they have played this year.
The Kiwi Super Rugby coaches worked with the AB coaching team to rest and condition players earmarked for the All Black squad. So Todd Blackadder knew his job was not on the line if he rested McCaw or Daniel Carter and the Crusaders lost.
Another area would be player positions. Under the New Zealand system, if Heyneke Meyer saw Jaco Taute as his long term #13 then that is where he would play in the Super Rugby. And there are two jaw-dropping examples of this playing out today. McCaw and Carter made their debuts for both the Crusaders and the AB's at eighthman and #12 respectively. Graham Henry's long term vision was different and in the 2004 Super 15 competition they were shifted to opensider and flyhalf at his request.
One would think that putting the national squad first in this way, would lead to a drop off in performance in Super Rugby. But since 1996, New Zealand teams have won the Super Rugby competition 11 times. During that period, South African teams have won 3 times.
Success breeds success.
Coming up in Parts Two and Three:
We will delve down deeper and look at playing philosophies and priorities, including:
Space v Size
Excellence v Winning
Evolving v "Sticking to our Strengths"
† Since 2004, New Zealand have lost three matches in the Northern Hemisphere: against France in the 2007 RWC semi-final; against the Barbarians (loaded with Boks and Aussies) in London in 2009, and against Australia in Hong Kong in 2010