They talk about rugby being a constantly changing sport, but sometimes it is the buzzwords and vocabulary that we use to describe it that changes more than the actual rugby.
I was having a conversation with a former top player the other day who kept on referring to the Springbok need to be more conservative in their approach and not to fall into the trap of thinking that they could play off-the-cuff rugby against teams like the All Blacks and Australia.
Gavin Rich writes in his SuperRugby column that when his friend used the word conservative for the umpteenth time, I asked him why he considered the ploy of launching attacks from good field positions to be a conservative approach. He agreed with me when I suggested that when it comes to rugby, the antithesis of “conservative” should be “forward thinking” or “visionary”.
But why is a pledge to run the ball seen as a “forward thinking” or “visionary” when the reality is that it has been around since William Webb Ellis picked up the soccer ball and ran with it.
When I was a schoolboy, the great running exploits of the Natal teams of yore were the stuff of legend down in the sub-tropics. Old-timers might still be able to tell you about the day in 1973 when Natal turned around a 21-4 deficit (tries weren’t worth the five points as they are today) in the last eight minutes to beat Transvaal at Ellis Park.
But while there were these sporadic purple patches which saw Natal thrive, the reality is that when Wynand Claassen’s team beat Northern Transvaal at Loftus in 1980 it was such a rare event that it was the subject of a magazine programme on national television.
Great spectacle though Natal often did provide, it wasn’t until 1990, when Ian McIntosh took Natal into the professional era five years early by securing the services of a massive pack bolstered by outsiders, that the province won the Currie Cup.
Craig Jamieson’s team had a mix it up rather than run it from everywhere approach, and my most vivid memory of that season, apart from Tony Watson’s winning try in the final, was of opposition scrums being destroyed by the Natal juggernaut. Yet King’s Park that year was filled to over-flowing and the Mexican Wave became a demonstration of the crowd’s appreciation of having a winning team to support.
In some ways Mac was more visionary than the proponents of running rugby that had gone before him, for his team that season played something that became known as “direct rugby”, an approach inspired by what he had seen from the then New South Wales coach Rod MacQueen. It was new to South Africa, and in that sense it really was visionary. Most importantly, however, it turned Natal into Currie Cup Country.
If you watch Springbok Saga you will notice that some previous Springbok coaches who introduced a “visionary” running approach actually did pay more than just lip-service to the concept. There were some outstanding tries scored during the Harry Viljoen and Carel du Plessis eras. On the evidence of these archival clips, the concept of the off-load is no modern invention.
However, the problem with both those coaches was that the injection of flair did not make for winning rugby, for the necessary platform and other elements of winning rugby were neglected.
I was in Auckland the day that Du Plessis’s team scored 35 points, including some great tries, against the All Blacks. The problem was their opponents scored 55. The following year I watched the Boks score just 13 points in Wellington. The difference was that the Kiwis this time could only respond with three. Which game do we remember more?
A few weeks ago, when I waxed lyrical about the style employed by the Falcons’ Rudy Joubert to beat Western Province, it was pointed out to me that it was “high reward, high risk” rugby. This was borne out the following two weekends, when the Falcons took 50.
While this was going on, the All Blacks, hammered by the Australians in Sydney, were morphing their style away from high risk towards something that instead of being known as conservative rugby, should perhaps be known as pragmatic rugby.
Against a better team than Argentina the Boks would have paid a massive price for their failure to adhere to the basics in the opening 30 minutes at Coca-Cola Park, so let’s hope pragmatic rugby is to the fore at Newlands this coming weekend.Tweet