Round 3 of Super Rugby of 2013 certainly delivered it’s share of surprises, frustration, disapointment, elation and joy.
Here’s having a disection of a number of the games:
Blues / Crusaders
Making my Superbru picks, I thought the Crusaders might be a bit rusty after having had a BYE in the previous round.
It panned out to be the case but let’s not take anything away from the Blues. It fascinates me how everything Graham Henry touches turns to gold – relatively speaking. Henry was of course the last coach able to gel this disjointed bunch into a cohesive unit, years ago. The Blues were a class above everyone else when they won the Super12 competition in 1996 and 1997 with Henry as coach.
It is hard to pinpoint what exactly the Blues are doing differently this year – in comparison to the last few years. It is mostly the same players with a few inexperienced but freakishly talented new ones. The Henry success recipe, if I were to make a call, is threefold. Firstly, and probably most importantly he has an innate ability to gel players into a unit. There is clearly a lot more commitment amongst the Blues and Ali Williams said after both the first two matches the players are playing for each other. John Kirwan is the coach but I believe it is the contributions and presence of Graham Henry which fostered this heightened sense of group unity and application. The approach – to create unity – Henry seems to favour is to make influential personalities leaders in the group. Henry’s philosophy is that players will handle the challenge if it is their challenge. The power of player leadership and the importance of player leadership is the main message of Henry’s autobiography, ‘The final word’. Ali Williams and Rene Ranger were made leaders in the Blues this year and they both were not only outstanding in terms of doing their position specific tasks but were instrumental in stopping the Crusaders getting momentum with beyond normal contributions. These two players are traditionally very much individualistic personalities, poor followers and consequently potentially destructive influences due to the fact that they are also so freakishly talented. If they commit, the team plays well, if they don’t fully commit then the whole team lacks special commitment. Henry’s approach is to make players like those two leaders in the group.
The second part of Henry’s success is to have playmakers with cool heads in the pivotal positions of No 9 and No 10 and on the wings players who are strong and fast with x-factor. In short, players in the pivot positions who can create space for x- factor players out wide who need half a yard to make something out of nothing.
The third component is hard work and his attention to detail in setting up structures and cohesiveness at the set pieces and breakdowns. He plans well and prepares well.
These Blues will get increasingly tougher to beat as the season progresses because Henry’s leaders will be getting better at their jobs, his playmakers are gaining in confidence and the commitment to structures at the set piece and breakdowns are bound to be enhanced by winning early matches. (Let me repeat I know John Kirwan is the head coach but believe much of this early success is a result of Graham Henry’s contributions to get the players to commit and gel as a unit).
This match, for me, demostrated the importance of the coach in the modern game.
Waratahs / Rebels
The Waratahs, in short, lacked energy. There is no zip in that team, while the Rebels is all flap-flap with no real penetration. The Rebels had 70 % of the ball when I stopped watching but was unable to do anything with that against a lacklustre Waratahs outfit. The fact that the Waratahs scrambled a win is no compliment to either side.
Reds / Hurricanes
This was a scrappy affair. The Reds were very good slowing the ball down at the breakdowns and to dominate the possession stats (keeping their hands on the ball). This kept the Hurricanes playmakers out of the match. The Hurricanes on the other hand just wanted to Razzle-dazzle without doing the hard yards up front. Like last year they are slow to develop forward cohesiveness / structures and are starting the season playing well below their ability. One has to wonder about coach Mark Hammett’s attention to detail when it comes to developing and refining unity at the tackle area. Last year it took them almost the whole season to get that in place but once they did they toppled the log leaders, but at a stage when they were too far behind to work themselves into the play-off’s.
The Sharks / DHL Stormers
“It was a ripper of a match”, said Bobby Skinstad after the match. “SA rugby is glowingly healthy”, was Andy Capistagnio’s remark after the match. Well they are either marketing bunnies for their broadcasting corporation or I must have watched a different match.
Yes, it was tight, the defence was outstanding and the field wet and greasy, but these are the conditions they will encounter in New Zealand were the kiwi sides play far more entertaining rugby.
So, before I get told that comparing South African rugby with New Zealand rugby does not make sense, let me explain why I disagree with the above mentioned ‘Marketing Agents’.
Rugby is a game of building pressure. Part of building pressure is to dominate set piece and the breakdowns and playing the game in the opponents half. So as a consequence I have no problem with tactical kicking and the occasional box kick but you can’t build pressure if you keep on kicking the ball away and if you can’t string phases together because you can’t hang onto the ball. Never in all my years as a Western Province and Stormers supporter have I seen Cape rugby so poor at setting up phase ball and so inept in the backline. Add to that the poor scrummaging and you have to ask what are the coaching staff thinking and doing? The Stormers scrum showed no improvement from last week and the backline play was as sterile and clumsy as last week. The ball never moved beyond Jean de Villiers and counter attacks lacked structure, support and runners coming on at angles.
The Stormers have made absolutely no progress from last year, in fact they have regressed. They are totally predictable, having made no adjustments to their stoid game plan. They’ve now played two matches and have lost both. How many more do they need to lose with a defensive game plan, obsessive kicking and forwards pods – as their only attacking strategy – before Allister Coetzee tries something completely different. They were the worst attacking side in the competition in 2012 and still are in exactly the same mould. Elton Jantjies kicked more than 70 % of the possession away and they seemed pathologically unable to build pressure. How do you build pressure if you can’t string phases together and if you keep on needlessly kicking possession away or if you never move the ball beyond your inside centre or those pods sitting in channel 2?
The Bulls have rejected the forward pods because the opposition had worked out how to defend against them, hence the reason why these Stormers kept on losing the ball when the forward pods hit contact. If this is the best the Stormers can do, then Cape rugby is in serious trouble.
The Sharks got dragged into the Stormers kicking and defensive oriented game and played a game lacking their normal imagination, flair and fluency. The reason why The Sharks won, was because Patrick Lambie’s tactical kicking was marginally better, their scrum was more dominant and their structures and commitment at the tackle ball better. They were able to string phases together and build pressure occasionally, specifically in the second half when they needed points.
My expectation is not that South African sides should razzle=dazzle like the New Zealand sides. More variation on attack, specially in the backline, better ball control at the tackle ball, some starter moves off set piece and the back triangle functioning as combinations with structure, support and angled runners on the counter – would be a darn good start.
Vodacom Bulls / Western Force
Credit to the Bulls as they entered the game clearly determined not to get pulled into an arm wrestle with the Force. They tried something different which culminated in a few very good tries. They moved the ball well down the backline, there was speed onto the ball and good variation when they took the ball wide. Their lineout and scrum was solid and they mixed backline attacks with some forward drives and midfield punches. They looked clinical – in the part that I saw – and they will get better as the season progresses. I didn’t see the whole game but the bit that I did see showed a team willing to move beyond the arm wrestle. One thing they can probably improve is more use of soft and quick hands in the backline like the Basson try which was disallowed due to a prior forward pass. They were spreading the ball but still tried to run through and over the defenders. If they mix that with putting people into space – with quick passes – they will be harder to defend against and more unpredictable. The loose trio combination is also a bit too similar and not really linking with the backs. It was not a sterling performance but an improvement on the previous week and I liked the fact that they seem willing to evolve and are trying to play more heads-up rugby.