If, in 2013, I’d told you that the average South African Super Rugby side would – by going all out over the next four years to produce an attacking brand of rugby – score an extra 10 tries per season, win 3 percent more games and accrue six more log points at the cost of conceding nine more tries and failing to clinch any titles, would you have given the project the go-ahead?
A recent poll of the average SA rugby supporter suggests that half of you wouldn’t hesitate to shout “yes, man!”
For all the negative publicity that the Bulls got for winning three titles by unfashionable means, they remain South Africa’s only Super Rugby champions. That’s right, the fireworks of the Spectacular Attacking Show that our franchises dazzled fans with between 2014 and 2017 produced this many Super Rugby trophies: zero.
Those four seasons are relevant because they begin with the return of the Lions from the sob-story wilderness of Super Rugby exile, and track SA’s Super fortunes through all of the completed seasons since. Combined, those teams won 166 of 340 matches with eight draws (49% win-rate). They scored 8597 points while conceding 8748, and dotted down 944 tries while allowing 1007 en route to a tally of 797 log points.
During the time the ‘boring Bulls’ won three titles, SA’s franchises combined for 120 wins in 260 matches with 5 draws (46% win rate), 5803 points scored, 6263 conceded, 639 tries, 719 allowed and 597 log points.
At face value, these totals suggest the attacking renaissance was overwhelmingly positive, with a big jump in points and tries scored, and log points. But a comparison of the totals doesn’t work because the format of Super Rugby changed, again, in 2016. The averages of the SA teams from each of those four-year periods offer a much clearer indication of the cost of Project Attack.
On average, between 2014 and 2017, attack-minded SA teams won eight of 16 matches in a season (rounded up), scored 388 points and conceded 397, crossed for 42 tries and gave up 45, and logged 36 points on the standings.
Between 2007 and 2010, conservative SA teams won six of 13 matches per season, scored 290 points while giving up 313, dotted down 32 times and allowed 36 tries for an average of 30 log points per team.
Admittedly, there has been a net gain in the numbers, but at what material benefit?
If professional rugby is about winning titles, and South Africa’s pursuit of a new style has produced none, has it been a success?
Some will point to the fact that the Lions have contested successive finals as evidence of the merits of the seachange in approach. But one Sharks semi-final, together with the Lions’ two semi-finals and two finals, account for all of SA’s final-four appearances during a period of guaranteed places in the playoffs.
There was no such guarantee between 2007 and 2010, and SA teams contested four semi-finals and two finals, including two all-SA finals (2007 and 2010).
And the folly of the attack-frenzy becomes even clearer when you compare the Boks’ fortunes across the two periods, with the first highlighted by a Tri-Nations title and series-victory against the British & Irish Lions and the latter blighted by record defeats.
With two rounds to go in the league phase of the 2018 season, the Lions are the only SA team currently among the eight playoff contenders.
If attacking rugby produces more tries, and tries win matches, why hasn’t a South African team won a trophy during this period of “positive rugby”?