Retro is a good look for Boks

Zelím Nel

You had to have a bomber jacket in the 90s. Preferably with a lumberjack plaid shirt underneath it. And a pair of black Doc Martens. Those were the staples of acceptable fashion for conforming teenagers.

This get-up has since been replaced by variants of 60s, 70s and 80s trends and, these days, even saying “bomber jacket” could get you fitted for handcuffs, if you happen to be in seat 7A when the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.

- Zelim Nel

Let's chat

  • gerhard van tonder gerhard van tonder

    We need to take the gainline back and our scrums. Dominant right shoulder from our scrum is already 80% on our way over the gainline.

  • hopefull

    Finally a pundit has seen the forest from the trees…..

    We have been duped into mimicking the All Blacks style of play…..greatest mind game of all time….”You have to be like us to beat us”

    Toulon, Leinster, Saracens, Montpellier, Racing, Wasps, Newcastle etc…..elevate to Ireland and England…..they are transferring physical rugby with power play as their dominating strategy…..European teams haven’t evolved they’ve just taken old style rugby and enhanced their attributes…..the Lions should’ve easily beaten NZ….some poor choices by Gatland… the games….the Lions where at their best when they threw physicality and Powerplay at NZ….

    I’m not saying try run through every wall….I’m saying let our forwards do what they do best….run hard….tackle hard and compete at every facet of the game….Saturday being an example…

    Our only weakness from Saturday was a backline that couldn’t finish off our forwards hard work….The NZ forward pack was completely outmuscled and ineffective….we bullied them….

    We don’t need tight jeans, tommy talkies and an oversized shirt with cut outs for chest exposure…..we need bomber jackets, stove pipes and a button up that fits….

  • Christiaan Botha

    Hopefull, your name should end with one ‘L’ only. And it’s ‘forest FOR the trees’. I’m hopeful that this will be helpful to you. Cheers

    • hopefull

      Wow did you hear everyone clapping for you?…..perhaps your hope should be placed on the fact that Grammatical rules are descriptive, not prescriptive….

      And just to be clear….

      hopefull (comparative more hopefull, superlative most hopefull)

      Archaic form of hopeful.

  • Johan

    The Lions vs Bulls debate.
    I was waiting for this, Zelim is a fan of the domkrag rugby, no doubt he will choose the heaviest backs he can find and run straight at the defence every time.

    “Our infatuation with the perception of All Blacks rugby has put South African rugby into a freefall.”

    We were in free fall before we started playing attacking rugby, Meyer, who made the Bulls awesome with domkrag tried the same when coaching the Boks, and, while he did better than Coetzee is doing now, 67% win rate vs 47%. He only ever beat the All Blacks once in eight attempts and he never won the rugby championship and under him and his domkrag rugby, the Boks lost for the first time ever against Japan and Argentina.

    And this was HUGE teams with Bismarck, Jannie, Beast, Schalk, JP Pietersen (106kg), and more.
    This was also a team with a lot of experience:
    The team that lost against Japan had 880 caps between them!
    The team that lost against NZ had 701 caps and another 324 on the bench for a total of 1025 caps (we lost 27-20)

    Our freefall started then. We also employed domkrag rugby last year, and even when recalling Morné we got hammered.

    This year has been a lot better whole year, we are attacking more, we are more committed in defence and our team only had 331 caps in the team. Only 109 in the backs, Habana has 124 on his own. You cannot expect such a new backline to run the world champions ragged immediately. Yet they did well.

    As for your attack on Elton, he has played 2 less tests than Polly, but he has outscored him. He has also played in more super rugby finals and he can take a hit, despite his size Jantjies has less injuries that Polly, and he is known for taking on the line, watch the All Black game again and watch the hits he gets up from.

    As for the Chihuahua remark, man of the match McKenzie weighs 81 kg vs 85 kg of Coetzee. Perhaps the All blacks should drop him as he is so small.

    Finally, this year, the Boks have started attacking with ball in hand, and with Venter joining the coaching staff we also improved our defence and commitment. We are now seeking a balance between attack and defence and finally moving forward, as opposed to backwards, as you suggest.

    • Archie

      Spot on! Its hard to argue with your facts. Well said.

    • Steve

      PERFECTLY put, Johan. I couldn’t agree more with you and less with this article.

    • Michael du Toit

      Excellent reply and great points about caps and experience. I keep saying to buddies who complain: 1. Give them time and support them, we have no other option. 2. Who else locally based is MUCH better than the current squad.

      I was chuffed to see all the support at Nuweland.

      However, the ABs can have ONE “small” oke (Mckenzie) cos the other 2 wingers are big boys. And he pulls his weight in defence and causes havoc in attack – like Aplon did and a Kolbe would.

      But the Boks are trying to play wide with an entire backline of “smaller” guys. There is not one beast in the backline. Think of Jean, Jacque, JPP, Monty, Frans. All big okes. So Habs could do his thing

    • Jonas

      Yes Johan, the evidence of progress is clearly there to see…….

      I suspect you are missing the nuance of the point being made. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. Whenever anyone even mildly hints at the idea of physicality being a relevant component of the modern day game, he gets shouted down by people using terms like “domkrag”. We have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We have abandoned what has always traditionally made us great in order to pursue some false idea of how “the All Blacks play the game”. Your usage of Mckenzie is a bit disingenuous as the reality is that the All Blacks are a team of giants. they are a massively physical team with tremendously large physical specimens all over the park.

      Physicality matters. So does size. It always has, and it always will. The All Blacks know this. The average size of their team suggests this. We seem to have forgotten this and sadly, England will brutally expose this later on this year when we travel to Twickenham.

      I also found your assessment of the “free fall” starting during HM’s reign as massively selective and once again, disingenuous. HM had to pick up a broken shambolic team after the disaster of the squandering Divvy years. Years where we should have dominated world rugby with the team Jake handed Divvy. Under HM we were the number 2 team in the world for almost the entire duration of HM’s reign with a winning percentage up therr with the best Bok coaches post isolation. What would we give for that now? Our team pushed the greatest rugby side in history (All Blacks during Heynekes reign) on numerous occasions. We lost marginally to them on neutral territory in the World Cup. A World Cup we finished 3rd in. Again, what would we give for that now? You speak about HM’s team as if they were a failure? How do you justify that in the context of what went before and what has come after? How do you justify that in the context of what team we were behind in world rugby? The only team I might add. I don’t think HM’s team was the best Springbok side we have ever seen, but failures, that I can’t agree with at all. I would have thought the last 18 months would have taught you that but clearly some lessons are hard learnt.

      Anyone making the argument that experience and size doesn’t matter in rugby either doesn’t know what they are talking about, or they are trying to push an agenda. So which one are you Johan?

      • Michael du Toit

        Good post and i agree HM was successful and i wish he had stayed for another 4 years.
        But i dont agree with “after the disaster of the squandering Divvy years.” – senior players retired after rwc2011. Some of the new players blooded by PDiv were not wanted by HM (brussow). Some of the others went overseas. Then HM had his own ideas (like all coaches do). Not all Pdiv’s fault.

      • Wessel van Rensburg

        Johan, you are rewriting history. With the Boks Meyer coached a very different style than he did with the Blou Bulle. Meyer blooded nippy players that looked for space like Willie Le Roux and Cornal Hendricks. His Boks was lauded for scoring more tries than anybody else in the Rugby championship 2013 season, and that with a very different running rugby style. A style he persisted with (with mixed results as injuries piled up) until the World Cup and the loss to Japan, when he switched to a more conservative game plan.

        De Villiers had arguably more success than Meyer, but with an extremely conservative style, that included a rampaging pack and a kicking Steyn at 10. What we need in actual fact is a combination of these styles of play. But also rugby nous. One thing we don’t seem to have lots of at present is rugby intelligence, regardless of style. We rush things, and we don’t seem to take the right options. Our kicking for field position is poor. To fix this, first play to your strengths and then add layers of finesse as confidence builds.

      • Johan

        1. I clearly said “We are now seeking a balance between attack and defence”, I’m not throwing out the idea of physicality

        2. Zelim compared Coetzee to a “Chihuahua try to take down a garbage truck”, I compared the Chihauhua’s size to his opposite number and found the Chihuahua is bigger than the All Black man of the match. Clearly my point in not “disingenuous” as I compared fullback with fullback.

        3. Average size of the All Blacks? Our smaller team lost by only 1 point. Also, the average weight in SA back line is 91.6 kg compared to 93.1 kg only 1.5 kg difference per player (Yes I Googled every player in the 2 starting back lines)

        4. Lost against Japan
        Lost against Argentina in South Africa (first ever loss)
        Won only 1 game against the ABs in 8 attempts (<13% win rate)
        Won 0 trophies in 4 years
        57% win rate against Aus
        In 2015 Meyer lost all Rugby Championship games (first and only time ever)
        Had 4 years to build his “broken shambolic team”
        Was fired for “team’s style of play” and “lack of transformation” and “favoring experience over talent”
        With all these milestones am I “massively selective and once again, disingenuous”?

        Finally, the “broken shambolic team” of Divvy (Of whom I am not a fan) did a bit better than HM:
        Won 47% of games against ABs
        Won a Tri nations series
        Won a series against the British and Irish Lions
        (yes yes, using Jake’s team) <- he still won

        If you call a team that won Tri Nations and British and Irish Lions Series "shambolic" what do you call a team that won NOTHING?

        Clearly if you go from winning trophies to winning nothing, you are in a “free fall”. Would you disagree?

        5. You might be right about the England game, but I think it will be close, us losing our forwards coach is a big factor.

        6. The point I tried to make about experience, is that our team does not have any experience compared to the HM teams. With more experience they will only get better. I thought you could glean that from the sentence: “You cannot expect such a new backline to run the world champions ragged immediately.”

        7. It seems that you fall into the category “doesn’t know what they are talking about” and I am pushing an agenda, I said so: “We are now seeking a balance between attack and defence”.

        We need to be both physical in defence AND attack.
        We have to improve our attacking skills to score tries.
        We need to keep the team together to get the experience.
        We need to stop looking back at “domkrag”

        • Shane

          I’m in agreement with you here.
          Yes size matters but it’s what you do with that weight on the move that’s more important.
          Running rugby with a mix of taking people on directly with our strong forwards is what will win us matches.
          But we cannot go backwards to the old style of play of yesteryear. The loss to Japan proved this once and for all.
          Even in the disgraceful loss in NZ… I saw a young, inexperienced Jean-Luc run into the All Black Captain and put him on his backside. We need to mix this with a proper defense and attack.

  • Hendrik

    And we need to stop playing players out of position.

  • Johan

    My final contribution:

    From rugby legend David Campese:

    ” In Elton Jantjies, the Springboks boast a flyhalf, who is a flair player and has got a good vision for the game. However, they have an inside and outside centre, who can’t pass the ball”

    ” the two midfielders have been moulded into nothing more than battering rams and they can neither see nor create opportunities”

    • gerhard van tonder gerhard van tonder

      It is an issue the creativity at 12 & 13.

      Do we play a second pivot at 12 like Pollard or an other to address the creativity?

      Maybe Kriel is a wing or fullback?

  • Gerhard Coetzee

    There is not much going on in the back line,despite good ball from the forwards.There is about 50 back line moves and I could not see many if there was any planned moves and the ball is just passed laterally across the field.Easy to defend against.What stood out is that the basics of drawing your man and put your support player into the gap does not happen. Watch the All Blacks and you will see that their players does not pass without drawing the defender.The back three should be used deep in the attach line from the back instead of running next to player in attack.It does not appear that our back line includes any game breakers.Skills is still a big problem in SA rugby which should be tough from school level.In Europe,Australia and New Zealand their coaches include skills training in all their practices training and includes what is to be improved from their last game.There has however been a big improvement since the previous big losses and this team will improve with time.

  • Steve

    Yeah, I honestly think all we need is for this team to stay together for as longer – but with a few surely obvious changes. Why Rohan Janse van Rensburg, the now-injured for 6 months Combrink, and Lukanyo Am aren’t there is a complete mystery. They’re all big, fast, have vision, pass well, tackle well, compete on the ground – everything our back line needs so desperately to compliment our forwards who now starting to really put it together with an incredible mix of our traditional strengths and ‘AB rugby’ if Newlands is anything to go by. And Nkosi and Gallant should also surely be there now, with only 2 years till the next World Cup. Put Kriel on the bench as a WING to make an impact. These selections would give us what we need to compete for no.1 again AND satisfy the politicians. What more could we possibly ask for???

  • Steve

    Oh, and Nche too. Even in our forwards the depth is there. Louw isn’t a no. 8 but he showed he can do the job when when Whiteley and Vermeulen aren’t there, not to mention Du Preez. Think about the front row talent, the talent at lock and the loosies we have. The list goes on and on, DESPITE the politicians and player drain. To me there’s no doubt whatsoever that we’re on the right path now. The only concern’s are bad selection and more changes to the coaching staff and management with Van Graan going, Rassie coming, and who knows how Venter will juggle 2 international teams up to the World Cup.

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