Everyone judges South African rugby based on the performance or non-performance of our beloved Springbok team. The Boks are after-all considered to be the best of the best we have to offer. If the Boks lose its easy to look at our players and our coach’s performance on the day.
The problem with this approach is we only ever tweak and fix the top tier of our rugby. We appoint new Bok coaches who work with new players – all in an effort to beat the All Blacks and be the best in the world. It is perhaps a logical reaction to an obvious problem: this tiny little Island in the South Seas dominating a large rugby power such as South Africa year in and year out.
However is it all possible that the problem in South African rugby gets spawned long before our players even become Springboks? Are we perhaps subscribing headache tablets to a migraine that has its source in the lower back? Are we asking our coach to turn water into wine?
Like most of you I spend a fair amount of time watching schools rugby games and whenever I can seek dialogue with the coaches at this tier of the game. Our high school coaches have for a good while lamented the declining skills levels of new learners, while primary school parents will in unison share stories of how some big kid playes at number 10 because he can bulldoze over the smaller opposition 10 and win games that way. And they are spot-on.
I have watched entire rugby games in which the under 11 level outside center will receive the ball twice that day if he is lucky. The coach instructs the bigger forwards to drive up every ball, go to ground and get another big boy to take it up from there – much like you see on TV. If the ball goes wide for a backline move you can excuse the 10 or 12 for not passing as they only get to handle the ball once or twice and entire game! Most kids seek contact and very few few seem remotely interested in passing to a fellow player.
I am told that the point of primary schools rugby is to win games, not teach kids how to play the game. It has probably always been this way – yet I cannot for the life of me remember a set move in my own primary school playing days that involved a forward player doing anything. Our entire team mission (even at under 9 level playing in Vaal Park) was based around getting the ball to the wing at pace. As a result we spent long afternoons learning to pass a ball down the line with a hosepipe at the feet of the scrumhalve. The wing had to be at full pace by the time he received the ball on the advantage line, represented by the hosepipe. The pack of forwards did their own thing most of the time – while we passed the ball over and over and over again until every pass went to hand at speed down the line.
Rugby has since turned professional and a great many things have changed. Schools are no longer fully state funded and have to rely on other sources of income. Schools have to be seen to win trophy’s to attract the best kids (and hopefully parents with money) and in the process our schools, especially the primary ones – sacrificed rugby in the name of ‘winning’ games.
At under 14 level, when most players should have mastered some basic rugby skills, coaches are becoming increasingly frustrated. To make matters worse, the 2 or 3 ‘star’ players from under 13 level come with huge ego’s having been made out to be the only attacking weapons in their respective teams while the other boys were bit-players. Having to ‘unlearn’ bad habits in these star players now take as much time as getting the other 13 up to scratch.
Some schools are lucky to be able to ‘retread’ players at under 14 level and prepare them adequately for high school rugby, whereas a great majority of schools unfortunately have to continue ‘winning’ by all means possible. Once more the game plan gets tailored to feed every ball to the one or two big flankers or locks who can run over the opposition. It becomes a game of ‘puberty mismatches’. Some boys develop earlier than others and if you are a smaller kid the chances are your game will be neglected in favor of the big kid who can ‘hopefully’ win games.
Forget how the Boks performed on Saturday. They played as well as a South African side can hope to play, bar the odd missed tackle. The problem in South African rugby transcends the Springboks. This is obvious when every new generation of All Black player seem to come equipped with 2 or 3 more arrows to his bow than his South African counterpart. We manufacture a big and strong and committed Duane Vermeulen who represents all that is great about SA rugby – only for the kiwis to produce a Kieran Read. Similarly we produce the brilliantly accurate and talented Morne Steyn only for the Kiwis to ‘see him and raise him with a Carter, Cruden and Barrit’ – to use a Poker analogy.
There is a disconnect somewhere, and I argue that we lose that 8 or 9% of our potential greatness due to our over-reliance on certain skills at schools level. We love the big bruiser and the crowd cheer when he makes a bulldozing run. If the same player happens to not see the huge overlap on his outside its no big deal in South Africa. We have the same thing in our soccer, where a crowd watching a Pirates/Chiefs derby get very excited over ‘tsamayas and shibobos’ and all kinds of tricks being thrown, yet care not for our lack of passing penetration or organisation on defense.
Do we have the guts to look deep within ourselves after this loss and once and for all admit that we are currently not good enough as a rugby country to be the best in the world? Will we start looking for solutions to what is obviously a problem, or are we instead going to hail how good the All Blacks are (once again) and just be happy with the guts and pride shown by the Boks? Can the South African Rugby Union look at some of the issues raised and maybe institute a new cycle of around 15 years in which we plan to overhaul how we coach the game and re-think those aspects of the game we value and those we ignore?
After the dust has settled, we still lost by 11 points at our spiritual home with altitude and travel fatigue on our side against a team who played with 14 men for 20 minutes. This kind of reality cannot be fixed by replacing a few Springboks or asking the coach to turn water into wine.