(Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Gallo Images)
Pat Lambie of South Africa shows his dejection during the 2016 Castle Lager Outgoing Tour match between against Italy at Stadio Olimpico on November 19, 2016 in Rome, Italy. Picture: GABRIELE MALTINTI/GALLO IMAGES

Another week, another low point for South African rugby.

In my column last week, I wrote that the Springboks‘ “share price” was being artificially propped up by a hope borne of the history of the jersey. And I quoted Red, the character played by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, as saying: “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

What I left out was the second part of that quote: “Hope can drive a man insane.”

So as disappointed, angry, frustrated and depressed as you may be after this weekend‘s low point, at least you have less reason to be insane.

The sooner we get a realistic appraisal of where we are, the sooner we will appreciate the work that is needed to change it.

When South Africa loses to Japan, Argentina, Ireland at home, Italy, and has record defeats along the way, that hope and history are taken away, leaving us with no option but to change.

I hope the change comes at the system level, however, because while those players who are wearing the green and gold are clearly not performing at the level they should be (which may necessitate coaching change), I believe the bigger issue to be their potential.

The quality of the raw material that the national coach sees, in other words, is the root cause, and that‘s a function of what happens to our best players from about the age of 14, into their Super rugby franchises.

There‘s been a good deal of introspection, which is never a bad thing, but I do worry that the focus of that introspection is too “operational” in nature.

That‘s human nature, because we tend to overvalue the things we can see and measure at the expense of things we cannot. In rugby, what we can measure are the statistics you typically see on the screen during matches — turnovers, passes, rucks, metres gained, tackles made and missed, and so on.

I‘ve been immersed in such stats for the past week because next week in London the high-performance managers of the top 20 rugby nations plus the coaches of the tier 2 nations will gather for a high-performance strategy meeting. I have to present the collection of these statistics in a sort of state of the union presentation, to benchmark the tier 2 nations against the tier 1 nations.

That prospect is mildly terrifying (what can I tell an elite coach with 40 years of experience in the sport?), but the process has been valuable because it drives home the important distinction that we have to make between measuring outcomes, as opposed to measuring inputs that determine them.

For instance, counting turnovers conceded and tackles missed is an outcome. So is knowing that SA kick more than any team except England and Wales. If you add that England contest 32% of their kicks, Wales 39%, and SA only 26% (New Zealand is 41%, since you‘re wondering), then you‘re inching towards some form of understanding of what decisions are being made.

There‘s more insight in discovering that South Africa kick, on average, every five passes, and have a ruck every 1.2 passes. New Zealand? A kick every 8.5 passes and a ruck every 2.2 passes. In other words, the stats can become diagnostic for behaviours, and that‘s much more valuable than knowing outcomes.

The ultimate preoccupation with the outcome is the scoreboard. We‘ve had a terrible run with that. The question that I‘d put front and centre of the recovery effort is whether we understand the inputs, the behaviours, that have determined this. That includes, as mentioned, emotional factors, and it absolutely has to go back 10 years, to understand what it is that we provide our national coaches with.

My feeling is that we should be investing in coaching our coaches, fixing foundations and not getting hung up on the skills deficits and operational issues in the Bok team. At least we‘re inching towards that realisation and, hopefully, sanity. —The Times

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  1. “There‘s more insight in discovering that South Africa kick, on average, every five passes, and have a ruck every 1.2 passes. New Zealand? A kick every 8.5 passes and a ruck every 2.2 passes. ”

    A more revealing stat I haven’t seen in a while. So basically almost every pass results in the player going to ground with the ball.

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