Zelím Nel writes for AllOutRugby
This get-up has since been replaced by variants of 60s, 70s and 80s trends and, these days, even saying “bomber jacket” could get you fitted for handcuffs, if you happen to be in seat 7A when the words come out of your mouth.
My point is that, while what is popular changes, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Fashion trends don’t evolve, they’re on a circular pattern. Bomber jackets will be back, which is why I’ve got mine bubble-wrapped in storage…
Same goes for rugby. George Smith and Richie McCaw took Super Rugby hostage in the early 2000s. Suddenly everybody had to have a fetcher at openside flank, and Corne Krige and Schalk Burger were South Africa’s answer.
Now, try to name the game-wrecking ball-hawks in Super Rugby this season. Smith is among the top five, one of which is a hooker and only two of those players have appeared in a Test this year.
While the game still rewards a team for fielding an openside that plays effectively to the ball, opposing coaches have found ways to move the ball without being punked at every tackle point.
Attack is on the same cycle. South Africa has belatedly jumped on the all-out attack bandwagon; worse yet, they’ve bought into the idea that the game has ‘evolved’ and that means old is bad and new is good.
Over the past two seasons, the attack-minded Springboks have broken records for milestone defeats. Don’t let it escape you that what is being regarded as SA’s best performance during this time – last week’s 25-24 loss against the All Blacks – featured a commitment to kicking and a forwards-based running game.
Those were the staples of Bok rugby in the 90s and 2000s when South Africa won two World Cups and topped the world rankings.
In this year’s Rugby Championship, the Boks made the most offloads and the least tackles. Only Argentina missed more tackles as South Africa finished in third place overall, ahead of the winless Pumas and behind a Wallabies outfit that was beaten by Scotland in Sydney in June.
Our infatuation with the perception of All Blacks rugby has put South African rugby into a freefall.
As an example, the Boks want to be seen to be progressive, so they’ve emulated the popular 1-3-3-1 attacking shape. The problem is, unlike the All Blacks, South Africa’s roaming forward in each of those wide channels is not supported by backs who can be regarded as physical.
When Siya Kolisi was tackled in the trams at Newlands, the first arrival was 85-kilogram Andries Coetzee. Watching him try to remove the nearest All Blacks threat was like watching a Chihuahua try to take down a garbage truck.
South Africa conceded nine breakdown turnovers; New Zealand conceded one. This is why the All Blacks can float no-look passes – even when they commit 41 handling errors, their physical superiority in the collisions bails them out.
Ironically, the chunkier a backline is, the wider the attack can be, because they have the brawn to take care of themselves in contact. It’s a point that has escaped SA coaches who have pressed on with plans to widen their attack with backs who couldn’t shift Butch James on a see-saw.
The solution for a mini-backline is a more vertical shape that packs the forwards into tighter clusters. The knee-jerk reaction to this suggestion will be that ‘the game has changed’ and ‘you can’t just bash it up round the fringes anymore’. And yet that’s exactly where Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff and Pieter-Steph du Toit made metres at Newlands.
If the Boks are serious about being contenders again, they’ve got to go back to the staples of power rugby and reclaim control of the gain line before we can start talking about the tight five throwing offloads.
You can teach a hefty piano mover how to tickle the ivories, but Elton John was never going to move a Steinway.