Only instinct can save rugby from grid-iron inertia
A game of rugby is an organic thing. If it wasn't, coaches would call every move and the spectre of gridiron would present itself: hours of boredom shot through with 10-second bursts of violence.
There was a moment early in last Saturday's game between the Sharks and the Stormers when an act of genius threatened to set everybody free. In broken play, Stormers flyhalf Elton Jantjies spotted a flat-lying Sharks defence and an unmarked winger. He dropped the ball on to the outside of his boot and picked out Gio Aplon to his right with a preposterously precise kick. The Sharks defenders froze in their tracks, like men locking a car door at the same moment they realise the keys are still in the ignition.
Aplon may be nudging 30 now, but he is still one of the deadliest finishers in the game. All he had to do was to catch the ball and saunter 35m to the unguarded try line. A certain seven points early in the game would have calmed the nerves for the visitors and simultaneously reminded the home side that the object of the game is to carry the ball over your opponent's goal line.
But Aplon dropped the ball, the defenders thanked their lucky stars and the moment was lost. Instead of urging a field full of internationals to greater and giddier things, Jantjies' s brilliance acted as a tourniquet to ambition. Zero-zero at half time, 12-6 at full time and scarcely a move that even threatened the try line. It was, of course, a great game, but how much greater might it have been if a little cut and thrust had been mixed with the blood and thunder?
Monday morning in both camps would have been a chance to view it all again and digest the endless stream of statistics the game produces these days. One of these was that the ball was kicked 59 times in general play. That may be an unacceptably large number, particularly given the poor execution of so many, but it includes Jantjies's moment of genius, so it is unfair to damn kicks merely because there are so many of them. Rather, it seems that Sanzar's decision to double the number of local derbies each season has halved the ambition of the teams involved, in this country at least. It is not the case in New Zealand, where new coach John Kirwan has inspired the Blues to successive wins with a host of youngsters showing off their prodigious running ability.
Equally, the Chiefs, the defending champions, have shrugged off the close-season departure of Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo to play an enthralling brand of rugby. In last week's encounter with the Cheetahs in Hamilton, the Chiefs spent the first half looking for the ball. In the second half, they found it and turned a 10-3 lead at the break into a 45-3 bonus-point win.
This week they play the Stormers in Cape Town and already the locals are talking the game up as make or break for the home side. It is certainly not that, but it is a moment when the coaching staff has to draw a line in the sand. Are the Stormers going to win the conference by playing the way they did against the Sharks, or are they capable of more?
Last season, they lost only twice in log play, a fact that camouflaged the almost complete absence of try-scoring bonus points from the campaign. The Stormers may not have known the way to the try line, but they were willing to spill blood to stop their opponents from crossing theirs. It may be that they have been rumbled as something of a one-trick pony, which brings us back to the line in the sand.
Even with the effects of jet lag, the Chiefs will surely bring more to the table than either the Sharks or Bulls managed in the past fortnight. They will stretch the resources of the home team out wide, where the frailties of the back three could be cruelly exposed. It is gratifying in the extreme, then, that Allister Coetzee has announced an unchanged starting 15 to take on the Chiefs.
That means another week for a back line accustomed to knowing exactly what the flyhalf is going to do before he does it, to get used to rugby the Jantjies way. This time, hopefully, Aplon won't be taken by surprise by an act of insouciance, and this time Bryan Habana, the most dangerous back in world rugby, might receive the ball from the pass of a colleague rather than the kick of an opponent.
If the game at Newlands is too tight to call, the same could be said of the encounter between the Blues and Bulls at Eden Park. A Sunday kick-off gives the Bulls extra time to acclimatise and prove that their listless display against the Force was an aberration. It also gives the home side an opportunity either to announce themselves as serious contenders, or to roll over and play dead against yet another incarnation of the blue machine.
The Bulls coach will be hoping for the predictability of a game of gridiron. His opposite number, a great winger from the game's amateur past, will hope that spontaneity can win the day. The result will tell us much about where we go from here.