Home General Discussions SA needs to spice backline play

SA needs to spice backline play


DAN RETIEF bemoans the state of our bland backline play and calls for a national campaign to revive this absent ingredient.

Sunday Times

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.

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  1. Just about the last spicy Bok try I remember
    is the move that let JPP in untouched from a lineout
    agains the BI Lions.

    Maybe we just don’t have the brains?

  2. Boertje,

    Fear not. The Super 15 is already showing the way on this and we’re only a few games in.
    #1) Super Pretorious at #9. No further reasoning necessary. it’s just that obvious.

    #2) Messherschmit-Willie LeRoux. His swashbuckling is something that has not been present in SA wings for quite some time.

    A question for you though…on a scale of 9-10 how spot on would you rank these selections for the next Bok squad?

  3. I forgot about the Goose. He is still a bit undercooked but his leg ain’t. At flyhalf…I dunno. Put him at Fullback like a newer Frans Steyn.

  4. Thanks for the Dan Retief article Boertjie, a special treat for those of us unable to amble down to the local cafe for the Sunday Times. I hope Dan got to see the Cheetahs v Rebels game yesterday. That last try scored by Piet van Zyl (an unfortunate coincidence of names) was sublime. Some 80m and 15+ phases to win against a never say die Rebels side.

  5. Reply to out wide @ 1:21 am:

    The first try IMO was even better…

    One things for sure… once dour styled teams like the Cheetahs are far more willing to attack with ball in hand… not too mention their handling has improved infinitely (one of the reasons the Aussie commentators love the Cheetahs)… but as Dan is inferring… it’s all very to want to run it, RSA teams now have to take that next step up and bring in some technical guns to design less projected moves…

  6. Ahmen.

    For those that say we should play to our strenghts, the forwards, and not try score tries. Piss off you 1 dimensional beings.

    We have the talent and we certainly get the platform with upfront domination, we just dont have the trust, we coach creativity out in favour of defense and the belief.

    South Africa versus Australia RWC 2012 showcased a Bok line up willing to score tries, and they did but were not allowed by cheating of course.

    Unpredictability causes havoc in defensive patterns and coaching. Lets go and score tries.

  7. Reply to Kevin_rack @ 4:27 am:

    You live in a dream-world!

    “South Africa versus Australia RWC 2012 showcased a Bok line up willing to score tries, and they did but were not allowed by cheating of course.”

    Oh they showed they were ‘willing’… but they showed how one-dimensional and clue-less their attack was… this is the basis of this entire article by Retief!

  8. Reply to bryce_in_oz @ 4:44 am: they were willing mate, they tried and in fact some times showed a flair. But willing shows a change in attitude long missing from 10 man bok rugby.

    I have watched the game in question a few times over now and they showed a major change in mindset from previous years. If a one dimensional attack can crack the ausssie defence 4 times we could do alot better with a clued up empowered attack who have the forward platform.

    I still totally disagree though on the aussie game. I did not even think the Boks would win the Samoa game. After the Samoa game, that most disgraceful game in a RWC, only second the Samoa 95 in thuggery, the amount of discipline they showed I knew on a even unbiased playing field we would have tossed both Australia and New Zealand into the ditch. We were hardened and focused and gave the ball width.

    Reply to Morné @ 9:09 am: we coach the creativity out of players and think focusing on our strenghts means 10 man rubgy.

  9. Well I dont think the Cheetahs are that flash. I do however think they spend more time passing the ball in training and this shows when they move the ball down the line. Their strategy to play Strauss out wide on attack is also clever as you do not have a small backline player out there who gets caught with possession.

    I thought Rassie played Nick Koster at wing for the same reason. You can go wide much sooner if you have a big player with skill out wide.

    Its however critical for this player to possess the skill and enough speed to not stifle momentum as has happened with forward in the backline for the boks and Stormers.

    The hand speed out wide makes all the difference for the Cheetahs right now but as far as creative thinking is concerned I think they can do a lot more.

  10. Reply to Kevin_rack @ 9:47 am:


    Funny how the Aussies and Kiwis are always keen to laugh at us for blaming refs yet the Kiwis still squeal about poisoned food and a poor ref dating back 20 years…

    In any event if one talks to coaches of the modern era there is no place for creativity. Everything… and I mean everything is coached.

    Absolutely everything.

    There is no such thing as “creativity”

  11. MORNE

    Idea: Maybe you can pass this article to
    some coaches you know for comment?
    The likes of Alan Zondagh and others?
    If we can get 3-4 concise paragraphs
    from a few guys it could be interesting?

  12. Reply to DavidS @ 10:38 am:

    I agree to some extend. Creativity starts and stops on the practise field. You either have a creative approach to strategy or you have a pragmatic one.

    Players can however be trained at schools level to have a more nuanced skill set where things like fop passes and one-hand offloads become a standard thing – allowing coaches to use this as a weapon when devising strategy.

    Fact remains – the Boks for too long did not drill backline moves enough and as a result our players panic when they get possession – as they did against Oz.

    Give the same possession to say the Reds in the QF and they would easily have scored 3 tries.

    The cheetahs send the ball wide very often, which means in a game situation their players are more used to handling it and forced to conjure up opportunities with it. The Boks simply were not trained to play this way, which in my opinion was a mistake.

  13. Reply to Boertjie @ 10:56 am:

    Yip agree.

    Would love to hear Allistairs comments. He with a plethora of Boks yet never able to score tries no matter how much possession given to the backline. Or Fleck for that matter.

    Bulls funnily enough are probably an even more daring side than the Cheetahs but this is often overlooked.

  14. Reply to The Year of the Cheetah @ 10:57 am:

    Bok’s did not ‘panic’ with ball-in-hand… they simply did not have any ingenuity and thus it was so easy for the Aussies to simply defend for 65minutes…

    And this is what Retief is getting at in it’s simplest form…

    I’ve no doubt Heyneke will be forced a token backline coach… but he’s also got the nouse to go hunting for an edge in the form of some innovation as he did with Louden…

  15. Cheetah’s back’s would be devastating (well some of them) if they had a few extra moves ball-in-hand… they’re punching above their weight in this dept though… a lot of ordinary players there alongside some bright youngsters…

  16. Reply to bryce_in_oz @ 11:15 am:

    In the Currie Cup it will be Super Sarel and Ebersohn as 9/10.

    Goosen funny enough does not have the pace or the break of Ebersohn which is somewhat disappointing. I see Goosen as possibly the perfect solution at 15.

    Still do not know what is keeping Robert Ebersohn down? Starting to think he should play wing rather? He seems to play too close to 12 and thus runs into a congested channel all the time.

    I would have 9) Piet 10) Ebersohn 11) Willlie 12) Snyman 13) Strauss 14)Ebersohn 15) Goosen as a starting backline to see how it goes.

  17. Cheetahs really needed this win and scored in this fashion.

    Last year their revival was based entirely on the talent of Pretorius and Viljoen to play off Johnson.

    Then they lost Pretorius and Viljoen.

    I am very happy that they did not resort to the pragmatic now that those 2 are gone.

    Willie is just an old school SA wing with a swerve and a swing and a good skills set. Much the same type player as Jaco Taute and Sadie. Its good for our country that we are again manufacturing such players.

  18. Reply to The Year of the Cheetah @ 11:26 am:

    Tere was a time that our coaches thought of 11 and 14 as the place to hide black players with the result that wer did not produce white wings.

    In the likes of Killian, Taute and Willie it is clear that this is now changing again.

    And it is a good thing.

  19. Reply to The Year of the Cheetah @ 11:26 am:

    Le Roux also has out-right pace at the switch of a button… needs to learn how to tackle though… hope he’s not another Burger…

    Reply to The Year of the Cheetah @ 11:22 am:

    Ebersohn will be better with better defending tactics and he can play his natural game more… he’s been the chief tackler in this (improving) but historically weak defending side amongst the backs(13 tackles made this weekend 0 missed)and it doesn’t help ‘all’ his loosies are not pulling their weight in this dept…

    Reply to Boertjie @ 11:22 am:

    “Methinks this is the sign of a good coach:
    A team punching above its weight.

    Could JW do the same with the Brumbies”

    His tactical astuteness this weekend almost saw the biggest upset of the comp (well one of them)… it took Wayne Smith 65 minutes to realise he needed to change game-plan, quit trying to swing everything wide and actually use his excellent forwards… result… try… and then last minute winner…

    Lol… back to your question… this was the SMH heading on their rugby page today… no kidding!

    “No stars but Brumbies punch above with White: Eales”

  20. So where are they going to hide them now?
    Are there any African blacks knocking?
    And surely the Ndunganes are over the hill.
    And the Kings won’t solve this problem, if
    you want to call it a problem.

  21. Hard not to agree with Dan, the last time the Bok backline showed anything resembling creativity was when Eddie Moans was in charge with Jake.

    Then again the rules these days and the league like defences make a difficult canvas for the running game.

  22. Back to the topic:

    Why set a benchmark in 1998 only to be yearning for the selfsame standard 14 years later?

    It pisses me off that the Cheetahs dont win more games. I ascribe it to lack of mental toughness to make the right choices when it matters. Maybe they need a world class lock and one proper strike runner.

    But they at least use 15 guys. You can see in their gameplan that the backline is expected to deliver the goods.

    The Boks, with all our talent – should aspire to play that game and not the safety first Stormers one – even if the latter team are more successful with it.

  23. Running rugby starts with intent.

    Set Pieces
    The scrumhalf should be either attacking the gain line (Sarel) or passing onto a running flyhalf. The flyhalf usually has to be running onto the ball to create backline play and should be willing to take the ball up to create doubt in the defence. If he is static it usually means a kick or pressure on the 12 which kills any backline move. If the 8th man is playing receiver, he needs to be running on the ball on not static in most cases. With the rush defence its critical the scrumhalf attack the gain line. FDUP did not which allowed the defenders to attack the flyhalf.

    IMHOWMFA I think we have had underperforming centres in the boks for a long while. I don’t rate Jean or Mossie any where near the quality NZ have in this department as a partnership . Individuals maybe but a pairing I am not convinced at all. Really compare these two to Conrad Smith Nah

    We can play running rugby but its about trust. I dont think our players between backline and forwards trust each other enough.

  24. Reply to Kevin_rack @ 9:27 am:

    You haven’t been watching the S15… of course any of the South African team’s (and in this instance the Boks) can play ‘running’ rugby… the point he’s making is RSA coach’s don’t seem to have the nouse for ‘effective’ running rugby (and in this instance from Retief particularly the Boks)…

    You count on one hand the amount of line-breaks the Bok’s make in a season…

    Fortunately for us… Heyneke Meyer has no qualms in thinking ‘outside-of-the-Boks’ and bringing in some expertise…

    But as Dan infers… we’d like to see this at every level of South African rugby…

  25. Reply to bryce_in_oz @ 10:05 am:

    I think Dan has been watching too much of the Sharks and Stormers because there vhas been plenty of good intelligent running from the Cheetahs, Lions and Bulls so far this season.

    But it is typical for Cape based scribes to believe that no rugby takes place beyond the northern shores of the Hex River…

  26. Reply to Kevin_rack @ 5:53 am:

    70% possession, 70% territory, 6 times more passes than Aus, 251 tackles made by Aus (record for a play-off round) and wait for… one single solitary line-break by the Boks…

    So yes… you can count them on one hand… very willing to run… no capability hence Retief’s plea…

    Reply to DavidS @ 11:58 am:

    Haha…. yeah I’ve seen that…

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