Having watched a fair bit of all the games this weekend, my advice to all my fellow SA rugby fans is to brace yourselves for some traumatic times.
Its still very early days, and the intensity of the Super 14, coupled with the rustiness of most sides, means that the log is susceptible to significant change before the play-offs. However, its very hard not to conclude that all the SA teams are going to struggle this season; both because of the ELVs and the return to full-strength of the New Zealand teams.
Probably the best SA team on display this weekend was the Cheetahs; not because they played particularly well, but because they seemed the SA side to adapt best to the ELVs, and much like the Sharks, should have closed out the game by the third quarter.
Again, its very early days, but what I noted so far is that the teams that have been successful under the new laws are teams that have several key characteristics; characteristics that are mostly missing from SA teams.
Firstly, they have strong tight fives – something which remains non-negotiable. I don’t think you have to destroy the opposition scrum at every turn, but you have to have the stable platform from which to attack – especially as it seems that the increase in free-kicks will result in the scrum replacing the lineout as the key attacking set-phase. No longer will a soaring Victor Matfield be the set-piece kingpin, but perhaps the less glamorous BJ Botha or Heinke van der Merwe will replace him; as teams look to exploit that extra space around the scrum.
Secondly, the loose trio is probably going to become more and more a set of three specialists rather than the kind of trio that Jake White was fond of – with three guys doing similar things (as will be seen later, the concept of a utility back could also change).
The kind of pace that the game is currently being played with; coupled with the fact that the ball is moving through phases very quickly means that firstly, a designated fetcher is very much on the cards. In defending, you have to have a guy whose sole job is to slow the ball down, and on attack, speed it up. While this was the subject of some debate under the previous rules, it seems to me that it’s a requirement now.
Another member of the loose trio will probably have to be a really dynamic, hard-runner, who can suck in defenders and also stay on his feet long enough to off-load; off the back of the scrum, with a bit of space to build up some steam, or even in the loose, to punch holes and drag in defenders who will then have no chance to get out with the quicker ball. Again, this is not a new concept, but it seems to have become an essential item under the new rules – whether it is Lauaki, Williams, Palu or perhaps Danie PK, you need a guy whose job it is to just run straight and hard until he is brought down or scores. Coupled with the fetcher to provide the quick ball, and the increased space created by the new laws, this provides brilliant attacking opportunities.
The other big requirement I see is for an old-school srcummy whose job is to provide direction and quick ball. I don’t see a Ruan Pienaar or even Joost van der Westhuizen thriving under the kind of laws that make a prevaricating scrum-half, caught between passing, kicking or trying to break, a liability. What is best is a guy whose first instinct is to give the backs or standing-off forwards quick ball – that has got to be his first instinct. A guy like Ruan, who likes the occasional meandering break into space without support, is just gonna waste time, and find that the speed of the game means that very often the fat boys are not there to clean up when he gets tackled, or to protect him at the base when he is at the ball– he must make do on his own.
Now more than ever, the backlines HAVE to be innovative on attack. Quicker ball also means that players don’t have the luxury of deciding their next move on the cuff, and SA players and fans who believe in this weird concept of the player “playing the situation in front of him” need to wipe the sleep from their eyes.
Try-scoring backlines like the Crusaders, Blues and Waratahs do not play by ear – they have lots of planned and practiced moves which they can use on various phases. The cut-backs and acute lines that they are running are not by fluke or the result of a player making a whimsical call, and under the new rules defending teams will have scrambling defence a lot of the time, so a runner running away from an outward fanning defence, or attacking the defender’s inside arm will be that much more effective, and must therefore be used more often.
There are of course a whole host of other changes and implications as well, but for me these are some of those which are most significant, and most ominous, for SA teams. I’m not a great fan of the new rules, and if things continue in this vein, my opinion of them will have good reason to fall even lower.
As for my own team, the Sharks, they have the abovementioned issue in the loose trio (AJ in particular is looking more and more like a bedraggled, ageing King Lear wandering forlornly in the rain), at scrumhalf, and with the backline moves. Only once in the entire game did we see an innovative move – an inside pass from Barritt to a flying Ndungane, while the rest of the backs seemed to be caught in the headlights every time Michalak threw an inside pass or looked to put a runner into space.
Considering that we have runners of the calibre of JP Pietersen (it was a great duel between him and Chavanga, and he showed some real wheels), Murray and Kankowski, one has to question the fact that they only seem to get opportunities in broken play. It is noteworthy that although we were far from dominated in any facet of the game, we hesitated to give the backs the ball, until Rory Kockott came on and basically forced the backs to grab the pill and try to do something.
In addition, guys like Pienaar and Frans Steyn need to decide quicker, and most of all, be less selfish with the ball. A very good point made to me by Charlie is that with the pace of the new game you can less afford players tackled out of a move, and that the best thing to do is to get the ball to the next guy before being taken out, where possible. Add to that that players need to know when wrong-footing one player instead of two or three is enough, and then you will find that even a few of the SA star players need to change their games.
All in all, a very dismal weekend for SA fans, and unless we are just really ring-rusty, some very troubling times aheadTweet