It’s time to face reality and admit that Springbok rugby is dying

The truth is that rugby in South Africa is in big trouble and it is becoming increasingly important for us to find a solution to fix this problem and to find it fast. We as a rugby loving nation can no longer resort to the classic excuses of blaming the coach or transformation or whatever reasons we may use to soft coat the issue. It is time to dig deeper into the reasons why rugby is trending in its current direction at present, they may not be nice reasons to read but if we do not face the truth soon or else we may wake up when it’s too late to fix the issues.

It is safe to start with Super Rugby, if we were to ask the common man on the street how the Super Rugby format works, I am willing to bet that they wouldn’t be able to explain, in fact I am willing to bet that the experts that we see on our TV screens every weekend are also not in the position to explain the current format. The complexity of this format has made it a deterrent for the common man and this is evident based on the fact that viewership and live game numbers are dwindling. It also does not help that we are fielding six teams which has directly resulted in us diluting the standard of talent that is playing in the competition. With the exceptions of the Lions, it seems the only time a South African team does win is when they’re playing against another South African team…The lack of elite-level depth becomes glaringly evident when it’s stretched across six teams.

There are now talks of expanding the competition even further to include a team from the United States and one from the Pacific Islands. This cannot be a good thing as we have seen in the past that the continuous restructuring of this competition has had adverse effects on us.

An interesting article by Mark Keohane argues that we should reduce the number of South African teams that participate in the competition if we are to use ‘quality’ as a criterion. The first incarnation of the competition was called The Super 10 and South African teams that qualified to play were the top three teams from the previous years Currie Cup but as the competition expanded from 10 to 12, then 14, 15 and currently 18 teams, we continued adding more teams and then began guaranteeing them places in Super Rugby even though their Currie Cup performances were poor. This was done to “grow” the game in new regions and to increase the number of quality players via more professional opportunities. I’m not sure either objective has been achieved.

Meanwhile, when we look at our Nations’ international performance, the picture is not a rosy one either, at the time of writing this article The Springboks have fallen to their lowest ever ranking of 7th! We have had good years and we have had bad years when it comes to internationals and I cannot take away from anything that we have achieve on the world stage, but no matter how well the Springboks play they will always be judged by one measure…their ability to beat the All Blacks. So if we take into consideration that the two teams have met ten times from 2012 up until present day and that the Springboks have only managed to pull off one win in all those encounters, it seems reasonable to say that we have an appalling record against our “arch-rivals” and although these games are always built up by the media, many now consider this oneway demolition not even worth watching.

Success will always brings back some promiscuous fans, yet winning may not even be enough to overcome rugby’s harshest reality. Specifically, that the South African game is perceived as lacking creativity and often shows no attacking intent.

Although this may be subjective, the general perception of the Springbok game is viewed as a one dimensional approach to the game that is heavily reliant on hoofing the ball upfield, bullying the opposition with a heavy forward pack then waiting for them to make a mistake where we will either take the 3 points or form a driving maul off the resulting line-out to drive over and score.

Rugby experts claim that we are playing to our traditional strengths but in the modern game where the opposition is just as strong, heavy and as fast as we are, we need to find another dimension if we are to succeed.

The only way that we can ensure that the game grows is to recruit new fans and to convert back old disgruntled ones but with the current product that is currently being served up on the Southern tip of Africa, these two things seems to be an impossibility.

At the end of the day, whether we attribute the downward trend of rugby to being boring, to a lack of talent or as many have done, to the transformation issue, the honest truth of the matter remains that rugby union is currently an inferior product and the powers that be need to act soon.

So in conclusion…

Our current talent pool isn’t great, we currently don’t have any out and out world class players plying their trade on South African soil. The results are dismal. The Super Rugby format is far too confusing. Our player depth at an elite level is spread far too thin over six teams. The average fan thinks the game is boring. Grassroots level development and talent recruitment is a major concern. Overseas-based clubs are poaching the little talent that we do have left. The bid for the 2023 World Cup is currently blocked, so there are no revenue or interest generating events in near sight.

The reasons are endless but it does seem that South African rugby may just have one foot in the grave and if that is the case, it is sad because rugby has been a big part of the South African fabric for decades.

The Era of the Superstar Coach

Nerd rugby

Jake White lifting the Webb Ellis Cup

Rugby seem to be heading down a road where the coaches are becoming the superstars and the players are becoming interchangeable parts of a system.

It is no surprise therefore that a player may be out of contention and favour the one season and the next he can be well regarded as the best in his club, province or even country, this was the case with Keegan Daniels who captained The Sharks to near Super Rugby glory and managed to win a Currie Cup in 2013, he went from these dizzy heights of praise and adoration to being nowhere in the 2014 season and is the direct contrast of his counterpart, Ryan Kankowski, who was lost in the rugby wilderness and in 2014 was given the opportunity to put up a strong case for Bok selection in the early stages of the Super Rugby spectacle. The only common factor of this role reversal is the coach, Jake White.

Ultimately, it makes sense that the coaches are becoming the superstars as the game is becoming more complex with each and every season that passes by. These new and ever growing complications have created a situation where a coach with new ideas and insights about the game ultimately affects the performance of his team and the reputation of his franchise.

The opposite is true as well, any coach who is not sure about selections, combinations and how to get the best out of his players is very quickly exposed. The ultimate challenge for any coach is to get players to buy into the system or game pattern that he wishes to implement.

We see this a lot with Jake White, who seems to have the Midas touch in rugby at the moment, he seems to know how to get the best out of any player, just look at Bismarck du Plessis after White gave him the captaincy, he became more well rounded, he went from receiving a yellow card almost every single game to leading his team to well and convincing victories. Another example of White’s coaching influence would be Patrick Lambie, who seems more calm, mature and sure of the decisions that he is making. In a Super Rugby game last season we saw him come back onto the field after being in the blood bin to score the bonus point try for The Sharks. White managed to squeeze the best out of Lambie by coming out publicly and stating that Lambie has been screwed around far too long and that this year he will be the premier fly half for The Sharks.

Nerd rugby

Pat Lambie

The modern game requires coaches to constantly be innovating just for them to stay in the running. A team that has failed to innovate or come up with something new to offer lately is The Bulls as they still insist on employing tactics and players that won them the Currie Cup title 13 years ago. The Bulls, a team that is usually in contention for high honours in any tournament, are slowly slipping back into their dismal form of the mid-90’s, 2013 was clear evidence of this as they spent the majority of the Currie Cup campaign just fighting for survival.

Their game plan of kicking for poles, whether it be through penalties or drop goals and scoring the occasional try through a rolling maul has not changed in over a decade, they have become a one trick pony and the opposition knows exactly what to do to counter their one and only trump card of the driving maul.

The Stormers are another outfit that is failing to innovate, or even worse they are failing to play any sort of rugby as they are ignoring the fundamentals of what it takes to win a Super Rugby tournament. They have become a side that is admired for their impressive defensive record but in the Southern Hemisphere, a game plan that is based on defense and is not complimented by an equally good, if not stronger offense will never win anyone a Super Rugby title.

The difference between winning your conference and also ran is bonus points. Last season, The Stormers scored 30 tries in 16 games, that’s less than two per game, which is shocking as they have enough firepower in their backline and enough muscle in their forwards to setup platforms for a more attack based gameplan.

In contrast The Chiefs, who were the overall winners of the tournament, collected 8 points through their try oriented attacking game plan. To put this stat in another way, that is the same as The Chiefs having won two extra games.

Interestingly enough, the team that has won the tournament has gone straight to the semi-finals and has avoided the qualifying match, they also had home finals. In 2010 it was The Bulls, in 2011 it was The Reds and The Chiefs did it in 2012 and 2013. Though it is not a cut and dry fact but if you have a home final then you are more likely to win Super Rugby.

There is no right way of playing winning rugby but there are many many wrong ways, for when you study the history of Super Rugby, you are studying the history of a masterful coach. One who comes in and creates a culture, one who gives a Super Rugby region an identity but more importantly one who instills a coherent and effective style of play that enhances the abilities of the players and makes their team champions.