New genes will put spring in Bok step
It is time to shake the tree from top to bottom because Springbok rugby has been driven into a cul-de-sac. You can blame Japan if you like. In the opening game of the World Cup the Boks lost because they did not take their opponents seriously enough.
Assuming that victory would arrive automatically, Heyneke Meyer’s troops ignored the scoreboard and went in search of a four-try bonus point.
Having duly achieved it, they lost the game.
Historically, Springbok teams under pressure revert to type and the 2015 vintage was no different. After rehabilitating themselves with some carefree outings against Samoa and the USA, they hardened up against Scotland and, by the time the knockout phase arrived, the Boks were so obsessed with making tackles that it seemed they could do little else.
They made a very limited Wales team look good in the quarterfinals, before winning the match at the death. In retrospect, the semifinal against New Zealand was heroic in its intensity, but entirely lacking in ambition.
The game plan consisted of stopping the All Blacks from playing and, to an extent, it worked. But it failed to take the logical next step that would see hard-won Springbok possession used creatively.
The bronze medal match was another example of Meyer’s desperate need for victory. After two early tries that threatened to turn the match into a spectacle, the Boks managed to lose the second half 13-8, reduced to kicking for goal with a 21-6 lead after an hour.
It is that maddening inability to find an extra gear when they are on top that stops this side from fulfilling its talent.
And so we return to the heart of the matter: for South African rugby to improve it has to find another way. It is simply not good enough to approach every big game with the same “they shall not pass and neither shall we” attitude.
On the rare occasions that the All Blacks found themselves under pressure in this tournament – against Argentina in round one and South Africa in the semis – they never panicked. Instead, they stuck to their pattern, ran straight and found gaps between exhausted defenders.
On an annual basis, South Africa produces more rugby talent than any other, New Zealand included. It has talent identification structures that are the envy of the world. No one else has anything like Craven Week, where the best schoolboy players in the country face off against each other every year. No one else has anything like the Varsity Cup, where the best players in tertiary education test new laws and run themselves off their feet.
But the game at provincial level – with the honourable exception of the Lions – remains moribund. Coaches chase away talent that is not big enough, drop players for missing tackles and persuade players of colour that they are good, but not quite good enough.
That is the elephant in the room, of course. Provincial coaches refuse to transform, so the national coach doesn’t have enough players of colour to choose from.
At the World Cup Meyer could only find room for eight in a squad of 31. Then, in six matches he managed to give Rudy Paige 13 minutes of game time and Siya Kolisi 34.
But it is in transformation that the hope for a better future manifests. The mixture as it is will always turn in on itself under pressure, but players from other backgrounds have different mind-sets. Many choose attack as the best form of defence, a tactic that works wonderfully well for New Zealand sides. But this is anathema to most South African coaches, who prefer to train their teams to respond in a particular way at a particular time.
We are supposed to be the rainbow nation, but we like to imagine that the spectrum is actually made up of black and white. As long as the coaches who run the game see it that way, there is no chance of changing the way that South African sides play.
We will be locked into another four years between World Cups when defeat is not an option, every game must be error-free and every opponent must be respected. Every game is just a little too soon in the curve to experiment and every defeat is something to be taken on the chin and learned from.
In case anyone has forgotten, the Boks have lost nine of their last 19 games. That’s a lot of chin music and a lot of learning that doesn’t appear to amount to much more than a hill of beans.
So open up the doors; forget the obsession with size and physicality; trust the players to control the situation; instead of kicking away possession, make passing the ball the fallback option; and, above all, celebrate the diversity of the players available.