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.