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Execution over innovation


It is a term one of the most successful coaches of Springbok rugby used on the magazine show Boots & All last night to describe Heyneke Meyer and our current Springbok playing style.

While discussing the Springbok’s chances this weekend against Scotland, Mallet used the example of one of All Blacks winger, Julian Savea’s try to illustrate how the All Blacks tend to use an innovative approach when playing rugby.  It was really something simple, Dan Carter received the ball, put over what can best be described as a cross-kick into space which Savea gathered and ran through for a brilliant try.  He then compared it to a situation where Pat Lambie put up an up-and-under in his own half which did not go far enough and resulted in all the Springbok forwards being off-side and an Irish penalty.

He did not have to say it in so many words, but the term ‘execution over innovation’ and the example of Dan Carter and Pat Lambie, both naturally talented rugby players, tells you exactly what you need to know about Springbok rugby.

I was immediately reminded of the Bulls approach at the height of their success 2 to 3 years ago.  Every single coach and every single rugby player knew exactly what type of game the Bulls would bring to the park every weekend and the Bulls made no secret of it either.  The challenge was simple; ‘You know what we are bringing, now come try and stop us’.

There are a million and one clichés we can use but all of them have been mentioned in some way or form over the last 8 years.  The point here is a simple one, most rugby coaches in South Africa including Heyneke Meyer prefers an approach of players executing what he believes to be the best game plan over an environment which encourages innovative, thinking by players.

It is not entirely a bad thing.  In his book Richie McCaw mentioned how it was just about impossible to counter the Springboks kick-chase approach with the likes of Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen punishing them throughout 2009.  When you have the players to execute what the coach wants and do it consistently, you will win games.

The downside to this of course is that you won’t have the right players available to you all the time.  Players retire, move on to greater things, get injured and can also lose form as was the case with Morne Steyn this year – and once this happens you have to hope that the player stepping up has the same ability.

You also create an environment where players have to change their approach or natural game completely to fit in with the coach’s style of playing, as is possibly the case with Pat Lambie.

It will also explain ‘strange’ selections or a coach’s faith in players many feel are not as talented as the guy waiting in the wings like Zane Kirchner, but the fact is, Kirchner executes the things the coach wants a fullback to execute in his preferred game plan perfectly.

The question is which is the right approach, or even, is there any one right approach?  Is it best for the coach to first identify a specific style of play he believes is the best and pick players to suit this type of game, or should a coach pick the best players and devise a game plan or strategy around them?

Unfortunately the answer is a lot more complex than a simple yes or no, or that approach over this approach.

I read Tank Lanning’s column earlier this week where he discussed the Springbok approach and also highlighted Pat Lambie and his play (or criticism).  We both seem to think that part of the answer lies in the timing, or generation of players at any specific time.  Would it not have been better if Meyer took over in 2008 where Jake White laid the foundation for a conservative, execution over innovation approach with someone like Peter de Villiers taking over once those players move on and coach a younger, exciting, or innovative generation of players in 2012?

I also do not believe in absolutes.  There is no absolute style of playing which guarantees success, but more of a balance that needs to be achieved through a process and over time.

South Africans in a rugby context are generally conservative.  We don’t like to take risks and we like to be able to control situations.  This should not entirely be seen as a weakness, but used as a strength around which one can build and introduce more innovation over time.  But time is something no Springbok coach will ever be afforded.  Too few fickle supporters will be willing to possibly sacrifice wins to allow a process to develop naturally.

When Jake White took a team and a rugby nation at the lowest of lows, he knew he had to tap into the rugby supporters psyche and his first mission was to restore pride in the Springbok jersey.  Bring back values traditionalist hold dear, and build a game plan around a conservative, defensive approach to build confidence.

I would love to see the Springboks apply a more innovative approach, but it is not something that will happen overnight and it does not seem that people are happy to afford the coach the time to implement this process.  South African supporters need to realise that for as long as winning is all that matters you will continue to see execution over innovation in our rugby approach.

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  1. Well said Morné.

    One of the biggest flaws in SA rugby as you’ve pointed out before is that every Bok coach has to start from scratch. There is no transfer of skill. I recently finished PdV’s book and while I think the book only tells one side of the story but one of the things he suggested to SARU was that he works with the new coach for a couple of months to share certain knowledge and experience with the new coach.

    This is were the Kiwi’s do things so right. The change of coach from Henry to Hansen happened without any disruptions because Hansen was Henry’s assistant.

  2. I will take it one step further:

    What about rugby as a form of entertainment in competition with so many other sports codes/idols shows/reality TV etc?

    Now I like winning as much as the next guy. But winning the way we do (and the way stormers win) leaves you saying: “hmmmm right, lets see whats on animal planet”. This while during the game you find yourself talking on twitter or facebooking friends as you are just not that into the game.

    Contrast this to the AB’s. I am not a kiwi and have no pride in that jersey, but as a form of entertainment these guys keep rugby interesting.

    I am 32 and maybe many people my age are not this way inclined. But if teams like the Boks keep thingking they can ‘execute’ and not innovate then I am afraid the game will die a slow death as the next generation of kids are much more distracted by whatever is out there.

    If I were SARU I would make some form of innovation and enterprise a non-negotiable for teams.

    The future of the game depends on it.

  3. I agree execution and innovation are both very important aspects of the game, however we have been executing the same for far too long, when execution is predictable, it does become a losing man’s game against the better teams.

    That is when innovation is necessary, and we have reached that point a while ago.

    Quarter Final in the world cup last year bares testament to that requirement.

  4. Reply to biltongbek @ 12:25 pm:

    Quarter Final in the world cup last year bares testament to that requirement
    What we needed was one trained and innovative
    move to break the stronghold of the Wobblies
    and Bruce Lawrence.
    Instead we stuck to the predictable same old,
    same old.

    I still remember the victory over the OZmob at
    Newlands some years back. The Boks used phases
    moving the ball from a lineout to the middle to
    enable Tina to drop kick the winning points.

  5. Only Rip van Winkle can think that a cross-kick to the wing is innovative. Naas Botha and his brother wing scored many-many tries for the Bulls this way in the late 70s.

    Piere Spies senior scored a CC winning try for the Bulls against Freestate this way, several years earlier.

    I’m sure there are earlier examples. It’s stupidity to think that something is new just because you haven’t seen it before.

    Mallett’s examples are both about execution. The ABs executed perfectly and the Boks poorly. There was nothing new in either tactic.

  6. Reply to Timeo @ 2:17 pm:

    I am pretty sure anything we see on a rugby field today was done before, but then, this is not about doing something that was never done.

    Mallet’s examples was about intent, Dan’s kick was about finding space, Pat’s kick was… well… kicking and hoping for the best.

    Your intent as a team is either to be innovative or conservative.

  7. Reply to Morné @ 2:31 pm:

    Your intent as a team is either to be innovative or conservative.
    Jip. In HM’s first test there were 3 grubbers,
    of which all three turned out good.
    We’ve never seen a grubber since.
    Never mind a cross kick.
    Innovation to me means something out
    of the ordinary, i.e. not bashing up every

  8. Reply to Morné @ 2:31 pm:

    Then we should agree not to use “innovate” any more. Your header should be reading “Cautious over Adventurous”.

    The Boks were cautious, the All Blacks adventurous.

    But why is that?

    Because the All Blacks execute so well they can afford to be adventurous.

    Because the Boks’ execution has been poor all year they have to be cautious. Once they execute better, they may also be more adventurous.

    It’s a case of putting the horses in front of the cart.

  9. its also possible to execute well a very innovative gameplan.

    This I think is the Reds.

    They play a very structured game. Its not off the cuff at all yet there is so much variation in what they do.

    The innovation comes on the training field. On the field you execute it.

    Hence, coach to blame for asking great players to play a donkey game. After a while they become donkeys.

    Thats Bok rugby 2012

  10. But yes, and it was obvious at the time – HM should have taken over a bunch of players he helped groom to play his style gameplan in 2008.

    Now maybe a Peter type would be better to rebuild something with a new group.

  11. Reply to Timeo @ 3:04 pm:

    No I still stick to innovative. They read plays and apply innovative solutions to exploit it. Springboks are robotic, structured, conservative.

    Of course Meyer’s ideal would be to find a balance, he found this at the Bulls (consider all the tries they scored in Super Rugby) – but it takes time to apply more innovation.

  12. Meyer plays this way because his team is far from settled, and he needs the wins. My message in this article is no different from the ones I wrote before.

  13. Nice thinking outside the box in this article and the thread but sadly lacking in the Boks setup. Some comments made here made me begin to think that innovation and execution are not necessarily mutually exclusive either. The fact that the AB’s are able to execute so well is because they dare to be innovative. Saturday’s game v Italy where they have made 14 changes from the side that put 50 over Scotland last week might seem reckless but it is in fact innovative in that they will be trying new combinations in the test scenario. What better way to ensure you have a plan b and c that can be executed when required.

  14. I think that conservative rugby is appropriate for tests and the razzle dazzle I’m so fond of in S15 with the Fun N Gun Cheetahs would go over like an lead balloon in the test arena unless you’re playing an easy-beat national side.
    That said, I do think its necessary in tests to have players that can seize the opportunity to counter attack from turnover or an odd bounce and go “jailbreak” with it.
    That requires the ability to handle, distribute and pace.
    The above is exactly why I think Messerschmitt-Willie LeRoux would be perfect in the SA setup.

  15. Ok, so innovation comes from confidence. Easy answer really,, the AB’S are innovative because they execute so well that they are confident in the abilities of the rest of the squad to do what is expected of them.

    You need to be confident in the abilities of the players around you, for you to take a chance and be innovative. So first sort out the execution, then the innovation would come naturally, as the confidence grows, ie the Bulls of 2009 and 2010

  16. Quite a few innovations there by both the Boks and the Scots, but perhaps they should have rather executed.

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