In South Africa, we always say, “New Zealand, New Zealand, New Zealand,” when we talk about how to solve our rugby problems. The All Blacks are the benchmark in world rugby, but we have that same system for success in our back yard and we don’t seem to see it.
It all became clear to me watching Maties play Wits in the opening round of the Varsity Cup. I switched on the TV and saw a stadium full of students having fun, a stadium full of maroon T-shirts and people singing songs, and then I saw the crowd sing the anthem with the two teams lined up.
I heard the commentators talking Wits up and saying this was going to be a great game of rugby. They explained that Wits had come up in leaps and bounds, that their rugby is growing and their captain, Constant Beckerling, is a great leader and a warrior who leads from the front.
Maties had this Chris Smit boy at 12. He kicked well, ran well, took the ball to the line and basically ran the whole show.
Wits were there, playing with spirit, passion, guts and emotion. But even though everything looked like it’s supposed to, Maties were always going to win that game. That’s exactly how New Zealand rugby operates.
Maties have been to eight of the 11 Varsity Cup finals and won four, and if we just changed the name ‘Maties’ to ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Wits’ to any other rugby nation, then that match would have played out exactly like an All Blacks Test.
As the game unfolded, the team with a 12 that understood what needed to be done, and a young 10 that listened to the 12, took control. Maties’ new scrumhalf made a linebreak for a 60-metre try that reminded me of Aaron Smith.
Take nothing away from Wits, they scored two really good tries and the commentators called it champagne rugby. But even when they scored in the beginning and it was relatively close, if you watched the game with no emotion, it was never going to happen.
As a guy who went to Wits, I can relate to how they were feeling, but what emotion and passion can’t match is decades and decades of tradition.
Maties got murdered in the scrums and lineouts, and, just like New Zealand would do, they won.
The way they overcame the challenge of losing first-phase possession smacks of a championship team. There’s so much more to the Maties program than just winning scrums and lineouts. If you’re at Milnerton High School in that situation, you probably don’t win the game, but if you’re at Paul Roos or Affies, you do. Why is that?
Maties will go back to the drawing board and fix their set piece over the next couple of weeks but there’s a lot more to them than just being a good rugby team.
The things the All Blacks pride themselves on, Stellenbosch oozes. The traditions, the blazer, the jersey and what they represent.
If you listed the greats who have come out of Stellenbosch, it would match (if not better) any other country’s legends. You could almost pick a World XV from that group.
Maties is the envy of every other team in the Varsity Cup and people know that when you go to Coetzenburg, it’s different. It’s a full house, they’re good players and they’re well coached. Wits will be saying “we killed them in the lineouts!”, but the reality is that even if you play well for 30 minutes, you still leave Stellenbosch with no points. There will be days when teams get it right against Maties, but that doesn’t change the fact that the building blocks of the Stellenbosch program makes them a well-oiled machine, just like the All Blacks.
And rugby is much easier when all those other things are in place.
What the All Blacks are famous for we have in our University system. Why aren’t we emulating that program in our senior and national teams? We sit in awe of New Zealand and ask how they keep doing it, but the winning recipe is on display every Monday night in the Varsity Cup.
It’s staring us in the face.