Rewind the Boks

Dan Retief

Former national rugby coach Ian McIntosh tells a story about an irate fan approaching him after the Springboks had returned home from their tour to New Zealand in 1994.

The expedition had been marred by poor refereeing while the advent of post-match citing procedures had South African supporters up in arms that the Boks had consistently been done in.

Emerging from isolation the Springboks struggled to come to terms with some interpretations, lost the series to the All Blacks (two defeats with the final Test drawn) and gave away their totem Springbok head to Otago. The upshot was that “Mr Mac” was sacked, much to the outrage of his supporters in Tom Bedford’s Last Outpost of the British Empire, and one of the King’s Park faithful needed to express his support of the coach.

“It was bad enough that they cheated you Mac, but what was worse is that the buggers made you play at 4.30 in the morning!”

That was in the days before rugby officials and television execs adjusted kick-off times to fit in with 10-hour time differences and South African fans had to be up before dawn to watch the matches.

These days, thanks to the marvels of technology, rugby tests played at awkward times are easy to track. Just set up the PVR and watch when it suits you.

In fact, my habit is to always tape games to be able to check on incidents so NZ vs Australia at midday and the Boks against Argentina late on Saturday night meant a “koffie-en-beskuit” viewing on Sunday morning.

One can skim through quickly, avoiding scrums being set or kicks being taken, but I was not expecting to discover a new insight into the wizardry of the All Blacks.

The factors that give the All Blacks supremacy are unquestioned. Their structures are better, they are more skillful, more assured in their methods, smart at disguising or shifting the point of attack, fitter and always seem to be able to produce an X factor player such as the outrageously talented Beauden Barrett.

However they are also quicker of thought and execution.

This became abundantly clear while doing my catch-up. The Explora decoder spools quickly and after watching the profoundly disappointing Springboks against the Pumas I skipped to recorded action at Eden Park.

With the All Blacks in possession I kept finding that I missed lineouts or scrums when rolling the picture forward. Each time it was the ABs turn to put the ball back into play after touch or a breakdown play would already be on when the action came back to real time.

The Kiwis are quick to kick penalties to touch (if they decide to), quick to take lineouts, quick to go down for scrums, quick to get back in position, quick to hustle into defence and quicker and seemingly fitter after long passages of play.

It was something I also noted during the Super Rugby Final between the Crusaders and the Lions when one could overhear ‘Saders captain Sam Whitelock hurrying up the referee with a sharp, “can we get on with it, mate!” to end a stoppage.

Juxtapose this with the way the Boks, and others, tend walk to lineouts or take their time in setting scrums.

The All Blacks have a relentless appetite for attack and will always try to speed things up.

Thus it follows that the way to beat them is to frustrate them. As former Wallaby lock Nathan Sharpe has pointed out, the way to get the better of them might be to play set-piece/field position rugby, to employ hard line tactics and to limit mistakes.

Add to make them play from deep, to kick accurately to land and not to hand to keep them on the back foot to draw the sting of their exceptional fire power once the ball goes loose.

The Boks used to be able to play this way. Eighty minutes of “in-your-face” rugby – securing the ball, powerful scrums and dominant lineouts, indomitable driving, crunching tackling and turning the opposition.

Perhaps it’s time to wind back the clock and return to the way we used to play rather than being obsessed with how they play?

The question is whether we still possess that indomitable attitude and commitment and, the question has to be asked, are our players fit enough?

- Dan Retief

Let's chat

  • Rant

    Could not disagree more. Rugby has changed, certainly with all teams now possessing bigger stronger and fitter players, we can not play “the old way”. The one area we have been found wanting is our so called physicality. Too often we are losing the line-outs, scrums and of course the collisions and rucks. Our malls are being stopped too easily, our defence is too weak and our kicking, more often than not, aimless.

    Yes, the issue is the systems we have not producing enough skilled and fit players for modern rugby. Only the Lions have come close, but the problem there lies in a lack of international quality. The sad fact of SA rugby at present is the players taking the step up to international level, more often than not being found wanting. Having said that, we do have some world class players: Beast, Marx, Kitshoff, Faf De Klerk, Willie Le Roux, Dyantyi, Etzebeth and Pieter Steph Du Toit. Certainly the likes of Mostert, Am, Nkosi, Mapimpi, RG Snyman, Wilco Louw, Mbonambi, Whitely and Pollard are good players, but they would probably not be selected in a current world xv. Even the previously mentioned players, perhaps only 2 or 3 would be in a world xv (Marx, Faf and Willie).

    This is purely due to the fact that rugby has progressed faster than our coaches could notice and/or catch up. Between 2007 and 2010 South Africa boasted 5 or 6 players who would walk into a world xv. That was an era that we dominated the rugby of the time and due to this dominance we kept playing the same brand instead of innovating. And there is the difference between South Africa and New Zealand. They innovated, changed, analysed and developed from the bottom up with everything geared toward taking the advantage away from South Africa and changing the face of rugby. We simply have to develop from the ground up and catch up, but also innovate.

    I hope I did gas-bag too much. Sorry not sorry.

    • Greg Shark

      “…The one area we have been found wanting is our so called physicality…..” – is that not part of the gist of Dan’s article….combine the power, physicality and then with some smart rugby and the AN will be at 6’s and 7’s…. we’ve seen it before. Once rattled you got to keep the AB on the back foot, getting in among their backs giving no room for maneuver, shut down the flyhalf conduit, and smash their forwards…..its just the smart rugby the Boks struggle with! I just think the clamor to embrace a helter skelter game plan has undone the Boks

      • Rant

        Yes, it is the gist, however you mention it yourself: “…its just the smart rugby the Boks struggle with” and that is what “modern rugby” is all about. There is massive confusion over what modern rugby is by the looks of it. Helter skelter rugby is not intelligent, playing with width is not intelligent. It all boils down to doing things well and making the right decisions. The Boks lost to Argentina despite having over 60% territory and possession.

        • Dean

          It seems like our game plan is to bash it up with the forwards, in pods of 3. Create the space on the outside from that and then pass it wide as quick as possible. Other than that we kick off 9 only. We use our 12 as a battering ram. It’s pretty one dimensional rugby and easy to read. We need a 12 that can kick, pass and be a second playmaker. Pollard is not the guy. He barely kicks or makes the play from 10. The current 12’s in the squad are not great at any of the above. Serfontein and Frans Steyn are far better players. In the first Test against Argentina, we used the attacking kicks brilliantly. We didn’t do that at all in the second game. Is Pollard the long term solution at 10 to ignite a backline? I don’t think so. He’s one dimensional and Jantjies is too erratic, especially when he is under pressure. IMO Willemse will become the premier flyhalf. He is far more dangerous and unpredictable on attack than the above two. He makes his tackles too.

      • John Comyn

        The Crusaders shut Barrett down in the semi final and he looked pretty ordinary! We currently have one of the most inexperienced back lines in Bok history. They are defensively shocking and not too flash when attacking.The only chance we have is if we take them on upfront.

  • Hopeful

    I miss the way we used to play….hearing the losing opposing captain say it was a hell of a battle whilst looking shaky and broken…now we only hear the opposing captains applauding the fans and in short well fried to the springboks…

    Blunt force in your face rugby…and when the opportunity presents itself you give the ball air and play running riugby….that’s who we are and what we are good at…

    Anybody watch Pau vs Toulon….a team of very few Big names just ground Toulon out of.a win….they tackled fiercely, cleared rucks Like men possesed and made every collision as hard as possible….man was I impressed and I’m sure the big names from Toulon are managing some serious bruises…

  • dbaggins

    This belief in absolutes does more damage than one can imagine.
    When the boks were feared, they didn’t think of themselves as only physical and confrontational. They viewed themselves as the best rugby team and players. That includes the full sphere of physical, confrontational, skills, athleticism, tactical application ect. ect.
    Aesthetic rugby is as much a part of the game as grinding out results. To be the best one has to be the master of all the aspects of the game. The AB’s aren’t obsessed with being the best at a single facet of the game they are obsessed with being the best at all facets of the game, just like we use to be.
    Uninformed media and fans are doing the most damage to our game without them even realizing.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Give that man a Bells. Cheers.

  • John Comyn

    Agree – anything less will end up being a hiding. 10 man rugby, slow the game down and kick for goal when you get penalties. We need to take Barrett out the equation even if we dedicate a player just to marking him. The only time we have beaten them in recent times is when our pack out-muscled them. We do not have the backs to match them. The only way to stop Naholo is to gang tackle him as was the case with did with Lomu. We have the pack to take them on.

  • Greg Shark

    “…Perhaps it’s time to wind back the clock and return to the way we used to play rather than being obsessed with how they play?…”

    WOW Dan, you’re gonna raise the hackles of one “herman’ and we’ll have to put up with his ringing overtures of “domkrag” rugby and how simply marvelous his provincial team is at running the ball from all angles…. the Bulls, so lowly as they are, nearly upset the ‘witblitz’ apple cart and undid themselves by a few points in the end….

    • John Comyn

      Herman is busy writing an essay as I am typing. Talking about the CC, The Stormers are looking very good. Be afraid, very afraid!

  • boyo

    The obsession with trying to be the All blacks is not helping us or Aus. All three countries used to play quite distinct brands and the NZ team took what they saw as useful from opposition teams and integrated it into their style. We lost our style whilst trying to become NZ instead of looking to add to what our players grow up playing.

    • Maxwell

      Right on Brother. Why would we want to play like the Allblacks if we have our own brand of rugby. Everybody and I mean everybody even the ABs looked up to us. Isolation gave us the perception that we had to catch up with international rugby. At that time we were the ABs beaters, we were the powerhouse of rugby. I believe Mac is the culprit. His thinking of ball retension, started this showdown that we needed to follow AB and Aussies. All we had to do was playing total rugby at time and we would have had the current Allblack sponsors on the Bok jersey.

  • Chris Mouton

    My goodness, there are a few fossilised game plans here! The only way to beat the All Blacks is to outplay them. If you keep kicking the ball down their throats you’re just inviting them to attack you. We all know they have amazing skills and fitness and they know how to utilise space and attack with pace. Kicking penalties doesn’t help if the other team scores tries. Ask Morné Steyn after Allister sent the SOS to the kicking metronome.

    In my opinion the best way to beat the All Blacks is to attack them, do the basics right and then protect the ball. No aimless kicks, no 50/50 passes, minimal missed tackles, no botched line outs, no botched kick-offs and solid scrums. If you kick, make sure you can either recover it, put enough pressure on the opposing team or kick the damn thing out. And play smart. If they’re playing on the offside line, make dummy passes from the base of the ruck to draw them offside and then pass the ball. Easy penalty against aggressive defence. If know it’s a tall order, but that’s what it takes to beat the best in the world.

    • Dean

      Your gameplan is exactly what everyone is commenting about. Make sure you set piece is solid. Aggresive defence. Kick contestables or pin them in their 22 and pressure the kicker. Front up physically, suck I’m their defenders to create space. If done with huge intensity the boks
      can beat the all blacks. If we play for 80 min.

      • Herman Schroder?

        But what if your opposition does all those things better than you ? What’s your Plan B old chap ? Our problem is we can’t even perfect Plan A. Cheers.

  • Vossie

    Agree with most comments, the Newlands test last year proved that if we take them on upfront and run direct lines we stand a chance, PSTD, Eben, Marx & Kitshoff had screamers because we were direct in our approach and found a lot of space around the fringes and when rucks were formed. It’ll be all about the forwards getting over the advantage line and dominating the scrums, if we win the first scrum it will be a mental blow for them but this can only happen if Louw and Kitshoff start i believe, Beast has proved that he can be a very good impact player of the bench. RG snyman combined with Etzebeth and Mostert of the bench.

  • Chris

    All of us in SA have been obsessed with the “Game plan” for the last 5 years. (and I include myself), but are we missing the forest for the trees ?
    I’m increasingly of the opinion that our problems are more psychological than we want to admit. Are teams like NZ really that much better ,or do they just have a belief in themselves that we lack ?
    If you look at the last 20 mins of their games, its almost as if they refuse to get it into their heads that they might lose even if they are behind.
    Did we do so much damage by losing to Argentina/Japan/Italy that we no have a form of PTSD ? You can almost see the shell shock on our faces sometimes when we get behind by 2 or more scores.

    I think we should stop obsessing about our long term playing style and focus on what needs to be done to win on Saturday. Have a custom game plan for the team you are facing and stop thinking about freaking Auckland 3 weeks down the pipe. We need to start digging ourselves out of this hole one shovel at a time by beating the team that’s on the plate in front of us. Last Saturday looked to me like a classic example of a team that wasn’t prepared for the game at hand because they were focused on what to do to win the war and not he battle ahead.
    Copying and pasting your gameplan from week to week also makes it too easy for a streetsmart team like Arg. to counter you.

    • Barry Smith

      Agreed, Australia have essentially three fetchers. They are not huge, but they are deadly come breakdown, so never mind the AB’S, what plans do we have for Australia? I suspect we will see PSDT at 7 to improve muscle power, but in reality we need speed and hustle factor! I would like to Van Staden and Notche in the mix!

  • Nick.

    We should stop obsessing about two things in my humble opinion.

    1. The world cup.
    We can worry about it when we get there. Do we realise the games between count? This ‘judge me on the world cup’ approach is bollocks. A get out of jail card for coaches here.

    2. The friggin’ All Blacks.
    Again, we can worry about them when we get there. What a boring, uninteresting topic. I couldn’t even name all of their players, no matter how good they are. Ranked at no 7 means we have SIX other teams to get past, as well as those lower ranked ones snapping at our heels.

    Let’s worry about the next game first and drop these embarrassing obsessions for a bit.

  • SweetAz

    We need to learn to cheat better or find ways of combatting it, the AB’s are not overly concerned about legalities,–just at being caught. As one of the posters alluded, its the “top two inches” we lack, “street smarts”. The players are all more or less the same weight and speed, our guys are just a bit stupider. Not sure why, it could be our Calvinistic background of obeying rules and doing the “right thing” or it could just be that our people are a bit “simple”. Its something I noticed when I started travelling the world, our kids and youngsters are much more immature, naive and less worldlywise than the youth of almost ALL other nations.

    You can see this naivete in the way the Boks play.

    • Barry Smith

      Yes, spot on. When the Kiwis refer to “Skills set”, this in plain English means ” knows how to cheat mate”!
      What struck me with the last Argentina game was just how much NZ strategy they had adopted. The double tackle and smother and the coordinated half a metre off sides, both executed quite skilfully!
      I am quite looking forward to that game AB’S Vs Argentina. It will be interesting to see if they have progressed as far as I suspect they have, or whether SA were just that poor!

      • SweetAz

        Yeah,-you have to wonder how much Graham Henry’s input helped because you are right they have actually been playing just like the AB’s for a while now,-the only thing that has let them down has been a lack of depth and the fact that I suspect they actually didn’t like the coach,—its what people don’t understand, rugby is a tribal game and people play for each other and the coach,—–Alister Coetzee was never going to have that quality as the man just did not have that magic motivational touch.
        If the Puma’s had the same depth as the AB’s have it would be interesting. I pick it to be a close game for the first 50 minutes and then the depth will start counting against them. I did say before the RC I expected the Boks to come last or second last so this weekend’s games have the potential to confirm or deny that assertion.

  • Barry Smith

    When considering our ability to upstage New Zealand, one merely needs to consider that they have a total of 28 000 adult players. South Africa has 122 000 – almost 5 times as many!
    Therein possibly lies the problem (one amongst many), in that NZ are forced to look after what talent they have, and face it, they are good at doing that, whilst we have several Super Heroes arriving each year..
    Consider the hype that surrounded Curwin Bosch when he arrived on the scene – how the media blew things out of proportion and how they have just as quickly discarded him for the next boy wonder… enter Willemse!
    Are these two any less talented than Damian McKenzie? I think not, but McKenzie has been allowed to make mistakes and has been backed and developed. I am not sure that we look after what we have properly and perhaps it is because we have just too much talent at our disposal?

  • Herman Schroder?

    So Dan appears to favour the call back to the past as do so many on this site. Which plan was that though ? Was it ‘ subdue and penetrate ‘ ? I won’t say dom krag because some find it offensive for some reason. All these wonderful notions of dominating teams upfront and pegging them down and capitalizing on their mistakes have long gone for us. Sure there’s a place for it and you must fight for every scrap of ball you can get but it’s what you do with it that really counts.

    Every team we have come up against these past few years has matched us physically, some like the AB’s embarrassingly so. When last have we really crunched a team at the scrums for example. Our 7th spot ranking tells you not many over the past few years. Look at the Japan WC game. The smart Japanese did a quick channel one ball and the ball was out before our lumbering loose forwards had time to shove or breakaway.

    Secondly, retaining possession. In days gone by before the rules changed it was ok to send a bomb into enemy territory 90% of the time and hope for the best. Or base your game on territory by plugging the corners. This however only serves to give away valuable ball these days. Watch the AB’s, every kick is measured and designed to retain possession. They can also retain ruck ball at will. When last have the Boks strung a really long sequence of retaining ruck ball in order to outwit the opposition ? Very few by my recollection.

    Thirdly, ball in hand and what to do with it. If everyone is honest here they will admit that the three tests saved this year were thanks to the creative abilities of Faf and Willie in the main. Also players, like Dyantyi, with instinctive high individual skill levels accounted for quite a few tries as well. So very few were thanks to a skilled and creative 10, 12, and 13. We all know that test rugby is instinctive and players must be chosen with those instinctive skills already in place. It’s not happening with the Boks.

    It’s quite ridiculous that in 2018 we are still pinning our hopes on out muscling the opposition. The AB’s these days have forwards and backs of equal skill just about. They eliminate all the problems created at ruck time by retaining possession and moving it about the park until the defence opens up. Our players still battle with even catching a pass or have no idea how or when to pass. Basic skills are already a problem before we even run on the field. Our record these past four years is testament to that.

    What to do about it ? Rassie now seems intent on calling up every Tom, Dick and Harry from overseas to fill his cupboard. Most of those players avoided the abysmal Alistair Coetzee years while some highly talented and skilled players had to endure his wretched non existent game plan and seem to be forever tainted by it Those who were overseas however don’t come with the mythical test pedigree so easily credited to them as some might think. Most of them were involved in the HM era especially the last two years where his record was similar to AC’s.

    Some have even been found wanting already. Flo Louw a typical example, while even Willie and Faf have been decidedly inconsistent. I know I’ll be shot down in flames but even old DV is actually past his sell by date. His one dimensional ‘grunt’ plan is gobbled up by the better teams anyway. Now Kolbe who scores a flash try recently is suddenly elevated to Bok status ? Transformation balancing ? Rassie digging himself into a hole is my contention.

    And finally SMARTS a valid point brought up by some on these sites and a particular problem in the current Bok setup. I won’t labour this point except to say that our coaching setup seems to have a ‘smarts’ deficiency and most of the players who have come through the ‘conservative school of mediocrity’ suffer from the same affliction. If you have hardly any smarts and all you have to offer is more ‘grunt’ then we haven’t moved on these past 9 years. Build from within, build a team culture and consistency and hand pick players with sufficient muscle but who have smarts aplenty. Seek and ye shall find.

    • humblepie

      Herman, this is a very good analysis. Keep up the good work to enlighten us all. This is not all doom and gloom but the first step of successful change is to understand the nature of the problem. I am afraid most of us have not yet ticked that box.
      I sense that even the slowest adapters amongst us, deep down know this but are either too nostalgic about yesteryear or are a bit scared to take the leap into an unknown new era. But just imagine the benefits if we do! I have no doubt that we will then once again be a top team that will inspire our nation. Boy, we need it. The role of the Lions in recent times to be a catalyst in this process continues to be of the utmost importance.

      • Herman Schroder?

        Thanks humblepie. Yes the struggle to enlighten those who prefer the ‘old ways’ is still ongoing. I have been pounding this drum since 2014 which coincided with the rise of the Lions and regrettably I still read these same old arguments year after year. We have the players, we have the blueprint, all we need is the leadership with rugby nous and vision to take us there. Cheers.

  • humblepie

    The Retief article is littered with factual errors.
    1. The All Blacks are more skilled – Utter rubbish. Our 7s players consistently demonstrate higher skill levels than the AB’s.
    2. The Crusaders wanted to play fast against the Lions – complete nonsense. They slowed the game down at every opportunity
    Then he went on to re-engage the old argument of playing “traditional” old school rugby versus modern rugby and concluded that the former is better!

    Old school approach:
    1. Slow the game down
    2. Run into your opponent
    3. Kick at every opportunity. Field position is everything.
    4. Pre-program your players into a set game plan and do not tolerate deviances
    5. Kick for posts at every opportunity that you get. Take the points
    6. Big, heavy players are everything. Don’t even look at a smaller player
    7. Only play rugby in the middle strip of the field. Avoid playing in your own 22. This make the field very small and it has a lower fitness demand on your big, bulky players

    Modern approach (employed by most of the successful teams of late; not only the AB’s):
    1. Play fast rugby in order to open up space. A recognition that first phase ball is sterile ball
    2. Run into space.
    3. Keep possession. Use the kick sparingly and mostly for attack purposes such as the kick-pass
    4. Don’t play pre-programmed rugby that is very predictable and easy to counter! Value game breakers. Value players that can think on their feet
    5. Don’t kick for posts. This is a cheap pressure release for your opponents when they are under the whip. At a cost of 3 points or less they get an opportunity to rest under the posts for a minute and then restart with play in your opponents half. What a bargain.
    6. Put a higher value on skilled players than big, heavy players. An understanding that the latter can be a disadvantage when the game is played at a high pace.
    7. Play in all areas of the field. Make sure that you take the ball wide and from side to side when you play against bulky opponents. This is an easy way to get them tired and neutralizes them when they arrive at scrums and line-outs as these are then used as opportunities for bulky players to catch their breath.

    There are many more examples of the differences in approach between the old school and modern game prophets. However, the stats are clear for everyone to see. The longer we live in denial, the longer it will take to get back to winning again.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Well done. Jake and every coach in SA should get a copy of this especially RdP, Fleck and the future Bulls guy who ever he may be. If no one’s noticed the AB forwards are athletic and have the equivalent skill levels that the backs have for their game. Fifteen men all in sync on the field. We are still trying to master basic conservative rubbish while they have moved on and avoid the rucks if possible and keep the ball alive with short quick passes before contact. Our ‘hammers’ either die with the ball or give an offload while taking contact with the obvious results. Smarts in very short supply in sunny SA. Cheers.

    • John Comyn

      Who plays this modern approach? AB’s, England, Ireland? Stats have proven these sides kick more than we do? The difference is the execution of their positional kicking. As do they kick at goal at every opportunity to keep scoreboard pressure going. The AB’s are giants by comparison, with the exception of one or two players. Size is everything! What they do is play at a faster pace and do the basics a lot better than other sides. Which is what the writer is saying. Dan is offering an alternative for beating them.

  • Herman Schroder?

    Well done. Jake and every coach in SA should get a copy of this especially RdP, Fleck and the future Bulls guy who ever he may be. If no one’s noticed the AB forwards are athletic and have the equivalent skill levels that the backs have for their game. Fifteen men all in sync on the field. We are still trying to master basic conservative rubbish while they have moved on and avoid the rucks if possible and keep the ball alive with short quick passes before contact. Our ‘hammers’ either die with the ball or give an offload while taking contact with the obvious results. Smarts in very short supply in sunny SA. Cheers.

  • humblepie

    I see several local journalists refer to Pocock as a big threat in the Wallaby team. The irony is that he is fortunate not to be a South African as he would have been considered too small for selection.
    Interesting how we dont value smaller players in our teams but still fear them when they play for our opponents.

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