The shutting down of Bryan Habana in the recent tests has drawn attention to a worrying aspect of Springbok rugby – an inability to construct tries in primary play.
For Habana, variously considered to be the fastest/deadliest/most dangerous wing in world rugby, not to have scored a single try against the feeble opposition provided by Wales and Italy is an indictment of the Springboks’ attacking play, according to Dan Retief writing for www.superrugby.co.za.
In 240 minutes of rugby Habana was not once put cleanly away (neither was Tonderai Chavhanga when he was in the team) to either try to outflank the opposition or have an unimpeded run at his direct marker.
Habana, obviously, is well marked but rather than this being an excuse it is further confirmation of the Boks’ sterility on attack for no attempt was made to exploit the attention being paid to the winger to provide opportunities for others to prosper.
Last year’s world rugby player of the year entered 2008 with 30 tries to his credit in 36 test matches and at the very least, against diluted opposition, one would have expected him to move yet closer to Joost van der Westhuizen’s all-time record of 38 test tries.
Go back to the World Cup Final and Habana has now gone four tests without a try and it is a real concern that there are so few signs of the Boks moving on from the kind of play that was necessary, nay essential, to winning the Webb Ellis Cup.
World Cups, as Jake White pointed out, are won by defence but for too long the Springboks have relied on a knock-’em-down-and-counter approach to create tries rather than constructing them through patient build-up and skillful exploitation of their advantages and strengths.
The main cause of this is the flat-line alignment popularized by the Australians throughout the 90s, rush defence as advanced by the Springboks themselves and the mantra that “you must not lose the ball,” – resulting in a tendency to take the ball back to the safety of the forwards rather than looking to pass it.
Deep alignment (with the backline describing a line pointing to their own corner flag), the double skip and the fullback hitting the line at pace have all but disappeared and with it the skills and vision needed to take full advantage of the explosive package provided by a player such as Habana.
And I believe this state of affairs have not be helped by the ELVs that seem to encourage more crash-bang rather than élan and excitement – largely because they encourage tap-and-go by the forwards and because the 5-metres-back scrum law to create more space for the backs has either not been applied rigidly or has been seen as a means to launch a strong-running No8.
Worse, more space has resulted in more time to kick the ball!
As world champions it is important for the Springboks not to mark time but to build to a higher plane – to develop a style of play that others want to emulate rather than merely bracing to stave off one assault after another from those wanting to knock us off the pedestal.
Ironically the way forward might lie not in new innovations but in old values.
Andre Boniface, one of France’s most stylish centres, was a master of the pass who was proud of the fact that while he scored seven tries in his 38 internationals his outside backs scored 38.
Boniface wrote* that that “the thing to understand about the centre’s role is that he should be a creator. He sets up what another finishes.”
“The centre’s ambition is to rein in his individuality, harness his strength and put his technique at the service of others. Of course,
that technique (and he talks of the mind as well as the body) requires years of preparation.”
These are the values that have gone missing – but hopefully not irretrievably. We have some very special players but they do not play in a special way. Hopefully a new coach, a new approach and a new mood will result in an old way of playing!
*From “Rugby” by John Hopkins (The Schweppes Leisure Library – Sport –Cassell London).Tweet