Diagnosis of defeat


It’s a bit dated, but I’m sure you’ll still find this piece by BRENDAN VENTER worth reading.

Brendan Venter, SuperSport

The fact that both the Bulls and Stormers have endured trying starts to the Super Rugby season proves that in rugby there is no permanent recipe for success.

I believe rugby is fundamentally a simple game, which we often tend to over-complicate. During my spell with London Irish, a phrase I coined was that, in the oval game, ‘the trick is that there’s no trick.’ The players retorted: “You’re just playing with words.” but I said, “No, if you’re only ever searching for the magic bullet you will end up missing the point.”

In the context of the Stormers’ defeat this past Saturday, Jean de Villiers must be commended for not offering excuses and admitting forthrightly that the Stormers were off their game. However, experience within the oval game has taught me that sometimes it’s not always about one’s own level of effort but rather the tactical ingenuity of the opposition that saps a side’s energy during a match.

As a coach, it’s crucial to employ a multi-faceted approach when analysing defeat. To use a medical analogy, offering the correct diagnosis is critical to the healing process. While it is imperative to look inwards for answers – which the Stormers must be credited for doing –further lessons can be learned from unpacking strategies put in place by the opposition that prevented a side from functioning to full capacity.

Johan Ackermann and his management team deserve immense credit for their side’s tactically disciplined territorial approach and kick execution. While the Lions notably made use of tactical chip kicks over the top, akin to the strategy we employed at the Sharks in the 2013 Currie Cup final, principally the hosts were successful as they prevented the Stormers from generating energy and momentum from multi-phase defence.

Moreover, playing in the pocket and slotting drop-goals was a deliberate tactical ploy by the Lions to suck the energy out of the Stormers and, in so doing, the scoreboard kept ticking over in the former’s favour.

Another tactical approach which I’ve observed teams are now increasingly employing is playing less rugby in order to win. I often hear pundits state emphatically that a team with little or no ball possession will end up on the losing side. However, owing to empirical evidence gathered, and the Lions-Stormers match is a recent case in point, this theory has been wholly disproved. At one point in the second half, for instance, the Stormers enjoyed as much as 62 per cent ball possession.

Ultimately, the Lions proved successful as they were able to starve the Stormers of their greatest energy source – their defence.

In spite of emotional reactions emanating from Cape Town, I believe the Stormers remain a well-coached, well-organised and well-structured rugby side.

Following on from the Lions’ tactical success with the boot, naturally other teams will follow suit and kick more against the Stormers. It’s therefore up to the management team to devise a tactical solution and turn the aforementioned weakness into a potential strength.

Casting an eye over the Bulls – who’ve suffered consecutive losses – I believe they are in more of a quandary than the Stormers. They have won three Super Rugby titles based on a simple yet effective blueprint. However, owing to injury and the current personnel at their disposal, the reality is that the Bulls are neither proving penetrative on attack nor breaking the gain-line – primarily they lack the explosive ball-carrying ability of the Sharks, for example.

Thus, I’m of the opinion that a complete system overhaul is required at Loftus Versfeld.

While the Sharks – widely tipped as the best South African bet for the title – have not reinvented the wheel, they possess a clear playing identity under Jake White.

In addition, I’ve observed back-line coach Sean Everitt has introduced inventive offensive plays, evidenced by Paul Jordaan’s try against the Bulls in round one. From a lineout, Frans Steyn came short, Jordaan drifted and owing to this deception Lwazi Mvovo was able to break the line and draw the last defender.

Special moments of creative subtlety impress me as a fellow coach.

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  1. Individual moments of creative subtlety.

    Its true that most sides play pretty much the same set-piece and defence game worldwide now.

    Individuals player skills still affect the breakdown along with the refs (individual) interpretation of it.

    Finally games are won more often than not today by a bit of creative spark and having players with the right skillset and decision-making capability to pull it off.

    The key word here is creativity. No use building a massive foundation if your only trump card is then to earn penalties and convert them.

  2. @Jacques(Bunny):

    Thats it. Its almost as if coaches can do everything on the training pitch to check the ‘defense’ and ‘set-piece’ boxes.

    Then, as Brendan says, its a bit of ‘what now’?

    If you have 10 players on the field who can make good decisions in broken attacking play, you are likely to do well.

    The player in SA who for me is the most perfect example of a good decision maker is Bjorn Basson. With quick turnover ball on attack he tends to make the right decision. Be it his running line or timing of the pass, he is almost never wrong.

    Then you have Sarel Pretorius who can create a kak load of play, but is not a great converter of chances. He starts a move, but he is not great at finishing them.

  3. If we have 10 players that can be change the flow of the game we would be World number 1, and that is exactly why NZ is that for the past few years…..that’s why we need more Willie Le Roux’s in our teams and only then will we be able to change the destiny of games played

  4. @Cheetah Glory:

    and unfortunately the ability to make the correct decisions on attack is learned behavior, not coached behavior. Teams who attack more tend to do it better. At the highest level of the game this is why NZ is nr one.

    Look at the last minute in their Ireland international last year to see 15 players make the right decision with ball in hand every time.

    Maybe in SA we place more value on players making the right decision on defense?

  5. Geez. That last sentence read:
    Special moments of creative subtlety…..
    Individual moments…..

    And the whole of the preceding paragraph is on how it was a team effort devised off-field by the back-line coach.

    How on earth did you guys miss it?

    Julle twee sit die pot heeltemal mis.

  6. @Timeo:

    And I am still waiting for someone to define the x-factor for me logically.

    The best I got so far is that it is someone who would try bat-crazy shit in a game failing 90% of the time but looking brilliant 10% of the time.

  7. @Timeo:

    I agree with you dude

    “In addition, I’ve observed back-line coach Sean Everitt has introduced inventive offensive plays, evidenced by Paul Jordaan’s try against the Bulls in round one. From a lineout, Frans Steyn came short, Jordaan drifted and owing to this deception Lwazi Mvovo was able to break the line and draw the last defender.

    Special moments of creative subtlety impress me as a fellow coach.”

    It wasn’t any players individual brilliance, it was a well rehersed move executed by the backline.

    @Cheetah Glory:

    Bjorn Basson has cost the Bulls and the Boks hugely through kak defense and lack of physicality which he still hasn’t worked out yet. Give me a Habana or a Pietersen any day ahead of Basson’s subtleties, because they’ve got ballas which is normally what counts when the chips are down.

    Willie le Roux was brilliant last season, but was surrounded by decent players that made life alot easier for him @ the back specially for boks.

    What worries me is that he is an individual glory boy who’s tricks (or trick) will be worked out either this season or the next, and he will have to evolve his game and develope like Habana did to stay at the top spot, or ells he will dissappear from the scene quickly (hopefully not though).

  8. With reference to the Welsh team, they are far better off with Paul North on the wing than they ever were with Shane Williams, despite Williams being the most inventive brilliant subtle soft hands specialist in world rugby.

    Williams conceded more tries than he ever scored, he was in many ways a weaker link for that team because of it.

  9. @Welshbok die Brandwag:

    I hear you RE Bjorn. I was only talking about his ability to make the right decisions on attack, especially in quick turnover ball.

    However a great many tries, especially from turnover ball, results from individuals making the right choices.

    In contrast how many times do you see clear line breaks with support runners not yield a try? In SA its vary rare to see line breaks converted into tries. Our players either pass too early or hold on to the ball too long. Very few will kick or even turn to wait for the support (as we were told at under 9 level)

    I simply dont think our players train enough such secenarios to become confident in making the right choices, so when a player does the right thing and a try is scored the words ‘x-factor’ and all that bullocks is bandied about.

  10. @Morné:

    In the SA context an x-factor player is one who makes the right choices on attack- leading to tries where we rarely see them scored.

    I like a ‘steady’ player as much as the next guy – if only SA’s multitude of ‘steady’ players can learn to make better decisions in broken play and convert more line-breaks into tries. Then they will all have the x’factor

  11. @Cheetah Glory:


    Rugby is a complex game for the fact that it is multi-dimensional event in which 33 individuals are actively involved for 80 minutes. It cannot take place without structure.

    The truly exceptional flourish within a structure, not outside of it and that is what I believe most advocates of ‘the running game’ get wrong.

  12. @Morné:

    I agree.

    The more structure, the more chance a team gets to attack.

    This is one of my key gripes with the Boks. As a team they create great pressure as a result of their structure being solid. But they ultimately cannot convert this into big scores because players do not make the right choices when given great ball and space.

    Some teams in contrast need very little ball and can merely ‘survive’ a structured onslaught only to score easily once a scrap of ball comes their way.

  13. This is also why I get so pissed off when forwards are in the backline once we get turnover ball. Their running lines and passing is simply not honed enough to make the ball reach the area where the opposition is weakest.

    So I will make the game even more structured and coach my fatties to stand still once we win a turnover.

    Fair enough for a Coenie or a Bissie to tire the defence with bullocking runs on attack. But when a turnover ball is won those players just butcher tries.

    Yes if you a Schalk Brits or a Deon Fourie or a Kieran Read or a Higginbothom then fair enough, but the majority of fowards simply dont have the skills to be effective with quick turnover ball.

    So more structure is justified.

  14. @Morné:

    “The best I got so far is that it is someone who would try bat-crazy shit in a game failing 90% of the time but looking brilliant 10% of the time.”

    I think Slaptjips was the exact opposite – swop the 90%
    and the 10% around.