What a heart-racing pleasure it was to see what looks to be an expeditious and discernible evolution currently underway in South African rugby. South Africa has historically enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in hulking athletes who, if all else fails, could inexorably bulldoze their way to a win with an effortless brutality that was the envy of the rest of the rugby world. However, sophistication in conditioning in the contemporary game has gone some way to eroding the natural physical advantage enjoyed by South African teams to the extent that it is no longer sufficient as a the primary means of fashioning a win against well prepared opposition.
For the best part of the last 2 decades we have seen a vacillation in the fortunes of our national team as the rest of the world has gradually made ground on us (and our greatest rival, the All Blacks, have all but disappeared over the horizon). What is perhaps most telling is the fact that all of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises have won the competition, 3 of Australia’s franchises (it’s 3 traditional rugby strongholds) have each claimed the trophy, yet only one of South Africa’s franchises has ever been in possession of the coveted title.
What has long been perplexing (not to mention vexatious) is that it has been no secret for a long time what the source of our comparative ineptitude was – a general paucity of skill and a mentality that seeks to minimize mistakes rather than to create opportunities (thus South African teams’ willingness to surrender possession through aimless kicking and hoping for a mistake by the opposition rather than trusting their ability to build an attack from deep down field), we were simply moving too slowly in adapting to the vicissitudes of the contemporary game. But the opening weekend of Super Rugby was final confirmation that the penny has finally dropped. The shift in paradigm has been gradual, with the Lions and Cheetahs leading the way in adapting a more audacious and skill-centric approach in recent seasons, the Bulls following suit, and now the Stormers starting to show the influence of adding former Blues attack coach Paul Feeny to their ranks by showing a sense of adventure that has been absent in the Cape since their current head coach still occupied the no13 jersey. The Sharks seem to have not as yet waved away the cloud of conservatism. The Kings, unfortunately, are too preoccupied with constant damage mitigation to worry about luxuries like a positive and adventurous approach – or at least that was the initial impression that they gave.
It is noteworthy that in the 2 South African derbies there was a preponderance of tries being scored in the extremities. The doubles by Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Hanro Liebenberg were all scored on the right hand corner, and all resulted from an offload in contact and at pace. Additionally, Cheslin Kolbe went over in the right corner, Siya Kolisi on the left, and Dillyn Leyds on the left. The Stormers have gone from an ultra conservative defense-oriented team in the recent past to tapping a full arm penalty on their own 22 to move the ball through the hands in a movement that would see them run three quarters of the field for Stormers debutant SP Marais to score one of the better team tries that we saw during the opening weekend.
Another strong indicator to the change in mindset is the selection of genuine playmakers at no10 by each of the teams rather than the long standing obsession with looking for the next Naas Botha. The Bulls and Stormers were each habitually putting in 3 or more passes phase after phase with the forwards showing some delicate touches as well in looking to attack the wide channels. This was facilitated by the faith and enterprise shown by the respective no10s in releasing the ball to his outside players, often deep in their half, rather than the kick-first model of flyhalf that we have become accustomed to in South Africa for some time, and long may it continue.
It’s early days still but these are encouraging signs that South African rugby has bought into the value of prioritizing skill development as the primary source of competitive advantage. This shift in paradigm accompanied by the country’s wealth of behemoths and gifted athletes is certainly the correct direction to return us to the summit of world rugby. It is also how we will bust the popular myth that South Africa’s talent stocks are spread too thin to have 6 competitive teams in Super Rugby. Adopting a skill intensive development philosophy will ensure that we are at no shortage of depth in quality players across all 6 franchises.
All the signs suggest that we are seeing the dawn of a new epoch in South African rugby worth the price of admission (and the price of beer), and I, for one could not be more excited – about the rugby, not the beer. Well, maybe both.