There was a time, not so long ago, when South African rugby players treated the ball as if it was a ticking time bomb. They couldn’t wait to be rid of the damn thing, preferring to tackle and tackle and then pounce from turnover.
But there has been a shift in mindset which has taken hold over the past few seasons, and seemingly flowered in 2018. South African sides in Super Rugby are treating the ball as if it’s made of a precious metal extracted from the bowels of Mordor and nothing is going to prise it from their possession.
The ball is no longer viewed by a player as a threat; an object with the potential to embarrass him. The view is more mature. The ball is there to be possessed, but as Frodo discovered in his quest, not at all costs.
By that I mean that SA sides are growing to realise that there is value in possession but also value in field position. In the past it seemed to be an ‘either/or’ situation, and the two were mutually exclusive. Teams were either kick-chasers or they were run-at-all costs (I’m looking at you Cheetahs). There was no balance.
The Bulls of 2018 are a case in point of this new balance. They haven’t forgone first-phase power, they are still a dynamic unit on defence and they have a great kicking game, which their tactical kicking masterclass against the Sharks a few weeks ago showed.
But what coach John Mitchell has given his players is the skills to be comfortable on the ball, to crave the ball and to always look for an offload or someone in a better attacking position to pass to.
Locks RG Snyman and Lood de Jager are running lines that would split any defence and Jesse Kriel’s hands are so soft you’d swear he’d been soaking them in buttermilk for the past six months.
The Bulls currently rank fourth in the competition for both the quality of their passing and the metres gained from their kicks, indicating that they haven’t dismissed the territorial game in search of more possession.
Kicking is still an essential part of rugby, which is something we often hear about New Zealand rugby and the All Blacks. ‘They kick the most’ we are told, and that is usually true, but what we’re not always told is that they also kick the most accurately and with purpose.
Look at the Sharks’ try against the Highlanders at the weekend, which my colleague Oom Rugby so intelligently dissected.
That move had players identifying space and using it, forwards offloading and ultimately a kick to set up the try, which needed Sbu Nkosi’s speed and awareness to complete. It was a microcosm of a new, confident SA rugby team and players.
South African teams have always kicked but too often the only objective of the kick was to relieve pressure and hope for the best. But because there has been a shift in identity in SA rugby – a new understanding of the value of possession, even if that means kicking that possession away with the objective of retrieving the ball in a better field position – there is a new swagger. This confidence in skills and conditioning has seen a clear upswing in the form of the best players.
Like life, rugby needs to be handled in a combination of ways; sometimes from long range, sometimes with possession and sometimes without possession at all.
The secret is having the ability to be comfortable with all types of scenarios and have all the skills to successfully execute with boot, hand and mind more often than the opposition.