A while ago I had the great pleasure of going to New Zealand with the Bulls as a guest of Vodacom Red. It was a fascinating experience to be a part, albeit for just a week, of a modern professional rugby outfit, especially one involved in a serious turn-around strategy. I’ve shared some observations on this before.
One of the best parts of the adventure was meeting rugby people from both the past and from today and chatting to them openly. The biggest surprise was on the day of the match against the Crusaders when a new pal, one of the old Canterbury players, asked if I knew that Ronan O’Gara, the ex-Ireland and British & Irish Lions fly-half, was assisting the franchise with coaching? That announcement had been missed so it was fun to ambush Ronan as he walked onto the pitch before the game.
As I hove into view the look on his face was priceless. “What the hell are you doing here?” was his opening line. We exchanged greetings and then he was pushed to give his initial impressions from now being involved in New Zealand rugby. He told me that the overwhelming emphasis on the game there is attack. From school through age to professional ranks, the first instinct New Zealand players have is to use the ball in offence and to support it. After that, of course, defending and all other aspects are perfected, but Ronan told me it was the overwhelming emphasis on attack that staggered him. Given that he is an Ireland legend, a British and Irish Lion twice over, and had coached in France, his reaction was telling. Maybe it explains why we still have so far to go in South Africa?
On Saturday I watched, on television, the Lions lose to the Hurricanes in Wellington. There was no lack of effort from the Joburg team but the difference in attacking ability was noticeable and stark. A 28-19 loss is not a disgrace but where are the Lions of old? They were the one local side that attacked with relentless persistence and, in doing so, they always looked threatening even against New Zealand sides. We were becoming one and we were competitive. The Lions were comfortable moving the ball from anywhere and worked like hell to support it. That was their main characteristic and it was wonderful to watch.
In this match they scored two burrowing close tries and one fortunate one via a breakaway sprint from Sylvian Mahuza. On a single occasion they broke from deep but botched the overlap with poor drawing and passing. Apart from that they looked, frankly, predictable and average. The emphasis seems now to be on field position, not ball quality, and that is a shame.
The Hurricanes constructed tries at will and often worked overlap situations. How is it done at will? The secret is in the philosophy outlined by Ronan. When Kiwis have the ball the first instinct is to use it in space. One of their tries demonstrated this beautifully when the replay was played from behind the posts. A counter attack moved from right to left and ended in Ben Lam out-sprinting the cover for his third try of the game.
In the move, from behind the Lions’ posts, you could clearly see the incredible work that Nehe Milner-Skudder did off the ball. The minute the ball was shifted he sprinted from his wing to support the move and thus there was a key extra body in attack. There was no thought of defending his territory, he was off like a shot across the field in support of the ball and contributed to the chaos in the Lions’ defence.
In contrast the Lions often kicked aimlessly and, even when moving it, rarely looked dangerous. They were contained easily and there was rarely anything approaching numerical advantage in attacking situations. Where has it all gone?
The Lions are still our best side. Their spirit is good and the scrummaging at the end was impressive. However, either due to the loss of key players, think Whiteley, Kriel, De Klerk and Cronje, or maybe Johann Ackermann’s coaching, it seems they have lost what made them special. Yes, they still attack but expansive and rapid movement from everywhere is no longer their first and overwhelming instinct. When they had that approach, opposition sides were not comfortable in defence and that opened up all sorts of gaps and also opportunities to vary tactics. Our back three used to counter attack with team mates in support or rushing to get there. Now poor Andries Coetzee simply runs into a wall of defenders when running manfully from the back. He used to see space in front of him as other Lions were in play. Now he is a sole and easy target. When sides were struggling to defend our dynamic and fluid attacks, Elton Jantjes could torment them and turn them with clever kicks. Now it all looks aimless.
Of course winning sides must be proficient in all aspects of the game. Set pieces and defence are vital and so is the ability to be flexible. However, New Zealand sides all have a first priority to attack and that is what makes them so successful. That is their starting point and is the hardest part of the game to master. The Bulls are attempting to emulate that approach although it seems they still have a way to go. Sadly the Lions, in this respect, have lost their way. Let’s hope this is recognised, set right and is just temporary. If not, then the strategists must be questioned. Why have we deliberately made ourselves average?