DAN RETIEF bemoans the state of our bland backline play and calls for a national campaign to revive this absent ingredient.
It used to be one of rugby’s most stirring sights – the Sharks’ 8/9/15 move. Gary Teichmann would call for a slight forward twist in the scrum to open up the blind side, then sweep the ball away from the formation to Kevin Putt, who had broken away.
The scrumhalf would hold the ball just long enough to draw the close-in defenders before letting it go to Andre Joubert coming up at full tilt from behind the screen of forwards.
Invariably it would result in the “Rolls Royce” gliding smoothly into the gap and over the line for a try.
The trio of Teich, Putty and Jouba stopped playing Super Rugby in 1999 and it is quite an indictment on current teams that there is no comparable tactic in today’s game.
In fact, the state of backline play is so bland it would not be out of line to call for Saru to institute a national campaign to find and develop backline coaches able to revive creative back play as an integral part of our rugby.
The Springboks have for too long relied on the quick counter off turnover ball as their main method of attack, and when you look at the state of back play of the five sides in this year’s Super Rugby competition, you wonder whether any attention at all is paid to enterprising, attacking rugby.
Doubtless, randomly incorrect application of the laws is contributing to the problem but there is also no getting away from the fact that there is very little imaginative back play to speak of, with none of the sides employing well-thought-out moves to outmanoeuvre opponents.
It’s all about closing the space, chasing the kicks, cleaning out and doing nothing that may be deemed precarious, with the result that you sometimes get the idea our teams don’t know what to do with the ball when they do get it.
Rugby has been called chess played at high pace but there is certainly no evidence of any intellectual strategy at work at the moment – especially not off set-piece possession, where the sole intent seems to be to either kick the ball or wrap it up in an articulated truck of trundling forwards.
A lot of what could be employed is actually quite orthodox.
New Zealanders, for instance, are fond of a move called “bigamy” (two misses) in which the flyhalf’s pass misses out inside centre directly to outside centre and he in turn misses out the fullback coming up from the back to put the wing in the clear on the outside.
At least two great Springbok sides have had success with a simple move in which the inside centre dummies back as though to crash onto the ball, thus holding up the loose forwards and pulling in the three-quarters, the outside centre drifts wide and the blindside wing surges into the gap thus created to cut clean through. (Pieter Rossouw, Wellington, 1998.)
There is just nothing that is daring or inventive in our back play.
As the late, great Natal coach Izak van Heerden wrote: “A defence that is never really tested cannot fail, only triumph.”
A telling indicator from Super Rugby’s list of individual records bears out my point. Only one South African, Bryan Habana, appears in the top 15 of leading try-scorers in a Super Rugby career.
Habana slots in at No6 with 49 (significantly 37 for the Bulls in five seasons and 12 for the Stormers in two and a bit) but is well behind Doug Howlett (59), Caleb Ralph (58), Joe Roff (57), Christian Cullen (56) and Stirling Mortlock (55).
It says something that New Zealanders dominate with Tana Umaga, Ma’a Nonu, Joeli Vidiri, Leon MacDonald, Sitiveni Sivivatu all ahead of Chris Latham and Scott Staniforth.
An inability to construct tries was one of the key reasons the Springboks were unable to beat the Wallabies in last year’s World Cup quarterfinal and it is time for rugby’s officialdom to acknowledge there is a problem with the general standard of South Africa’s back play and to do something about it … before it hurts the Boks again.