OPINION: Springbok Solution isn’t Rocket Science

Springboks loss

Head-scratching decisions have left Springbok rugby in a dark place, but is a light at the end of the tunnel?

“We tried to play a distance kicking game and then field contestable kicks coming back, but the aerial skills are not good enough – they [All Blacks] keep winning the possession.” These are the words from Springbok coach Allister Coetzee following the 9-try drumming of South Africa in Durban by the All Blacks. An undeniable low-point for South African rugby and its supporters, and one which marks a sign of things to come unless intervention is put in place; thankfully, Coetzee “knows what we need to fix.”

Sarcasm aside, Allister Coetzee hasn’t shown any improvement during his 9 match tenure with the Springboks. A poor series against the Irish, compounded by four (out of six) losses in the Rugby Championship tournament signals one of the worst seasons in recent memory.

While the Springboks have been underwhelming so far this year, the lacklustre performance against the All Blacks (which got progressively worse throughout the encounter) was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. This wasn’t a surprising loss or anomaly in the rugby world, but an inevitability that we’ve been creeping towards over the past 10 months.

The frustration and backlash from the South African public is due to the fact that nothing has changed since the first Irish Test. A lack of strategy and leadership, poor game management, questionable player combinations, and an inability to adapt to changing game conditions – these are things that need to be rectified from one week to the next, but the stubborn persistence from the Springboks and management to refuse change is frankly baffling.

Let’s look at the boiling-pot moment: the All Black Test in Durban, along with Coetzee’s post-match comments. While it’s paramount to actually have aerial-contesting skills (something these players should have by the time they reach national level), Coetzee’s fixation on improving one facet to fit an outdated strategy, rather than implementing a better tactic, is concerning.  He wants to persist with a “distance kicking game and then field contestable kicks coming back” (as he calls it). Could there be a more dumbed-down rugby strategy? If you’re going to execute a strategic mindset such as that, selection is key. Coetzee’s selection committee somehow agreed to field so many players out of position, that the team-sheet became somewhat of a meme throughout the week that followed.

Playing a flyhalf (Lambie) at fullback and a scrumhalf (Francois Hougaard) on the left wing, which in turn forced left wing specialist (Bryan Habana) to shift to the right (to name a few of the head-scratching selections) highlighted that a) Coetzee’s “kicking game” was more of a phatic distraction of words, and b) South Africa rugby has no appreciation for the specialisation of positions – something the All Blacks have embraced fully over the past decade.

Speed, accuracy, skills, and confidence is what wins rugby matches in the modern era of rugby. The All Blacks have created the framework for this and proven it works in both Test, tournament, and domestic rugby. The idea that you have to play conservatively in Test rugby is the hole-filled safety net coaches tend to bank on. The Lions, a revelation in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, have proven that South Africans have the skills and coaches available to produce positive running-rugby systems, yet the national side remains mulish in their willingness to embrace change.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Based on this interpretation, it’s clear that the Springboks’ game-plan is not only blatantly obvious, but it is in fact insane. Coetzee is very happy to candidly telegraph the strategy to whoever the opponents may be that week – explaining the tropes and cliches of a tactical kicking game and how it will best the challengers. In the case of the All Blacks, the Kiwis knew South Africa were always going to look for territory using the boot, and like a pre-run drill, the visitors always have 3 or 4 players back, ready to run as soon as the ball was generously kicked their way. But the most astonishing thing is, the Springboks looked stunned and surprised that the All Blacks counter-attacked instead of returning the favour and letting the Boks “field contesting kicks coming back”, as Coetzee put it. The expectation of a desired outcome or reaction from a team like the All Blacks is not only ridiculous, but naive.

“Surely we have a problem with our aerial skills and it is not a Springbok thing, it is something we will all have to look at,” added Coetzee.
“That is why the indaba is important – to address those focus areas we feel we are lacking.” The fact that SA Rugby have to have an indaba to discuss something so blindingly obvious is comical and a sign that there is no coaching amenities readily available. The indaba itself is a good idea (although it took SA rugby 120 years to realise they need to have a consensus amongst union coaches), but using it to discuss “aerial skills”, as Coetzee wants to, should not be the focus, but rather realigning the respective unions’ brands of rugby for the greater good, getting the contracting policy sorted out, and putting professional coaching resources in place. Because at the moment, it looks like amateur coaching in a professional era.

Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts on the current Springbok situation? Let us know by tweeting us @MenStuffZA!

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