Many years ago we were on rugby tour in Japan with Cambridge University. What an experience! There are so many memories in addition to the fast and fair rugby we enjoyed. I had a dinner with the heir to the Toyota empire in a top Tokyo restaurant he had booked out completely, just for the four of us who were there! We met the spiritual leader of the Tenrikyo faith, The Shinbashira, who is God incarnate for the religion. We saw bonsai and stone gardens, Sumo wrestlers, Geishas and Punk rockers and marvelled at the strangeness of it all.
One incident, surprisingly, stands out. It had been arranged that a famous calligrapher would give us a demonstration of his work. He was an old man and as he came into the hotel room all Japanese present bowed and then applauded loudly. We were, clearly, in for a treat. The exhibition consisted of him drawing various Japanese symbols on white rice paper with a small brush. Gasps of Japanese amazement were initially, I’m ashamed to say, interspersed with stifled giggles from our players. What on earth was it all about? Watching an old man write on a piece of paper? As he continued ,unabated, the room became silent. We were, in turn, hypnotised by his ability to make such a complicated operation look simple. At the end we applauded, genuinely enthralled, along with the rest. We had witnessed genius at work.
That’s often the way it is in sport. The superstars and super teams make it all look so easy. Think of Barcelona at their best. Think of Roger Federer. Think of Wayde van Niekerk, not playing touch rugby, but breaking the world 400m record. Think of Serena at her magnificent best. Floyd Mayweather made the hardest sport in the world look like a sparring session. Look at our Sevens team.
I watched them against Uganda yesterday and they looked a bit rusty. In fact it was the Cranes who invited praise with a spirited display. Neil Powell obviously wasn’t impressed and, second time up, the Blitzbokke dispatched Kenya, who had earlier impressed hugely in hammering Canada with ease. Our final score was 48-5. Amazingly, the Kenyans started the better team and scored first. Then the green tide took over. How are they so good? Is it hard to understand? No!
Regardless of the situation, the Sevens players react instantly and, almost always, appropriately. They defend in an aggressive fashion and are as physical as any side. However, it is always controlled. They cut space, pressurise and tackle like hell. They also recognise when a turnover is on and commit in number and aggression. Defence is massively important. Then, when they have the ball they play to their strengths in attack. They all recognise that space can be created with long passes. This often releases Senatla and thus they score. But, they also understand that defences spread to deal with the danger out wide and this creates space for breaks inside. At all stages they instinctively look to run lines at the ball carrier and take off-loads. It is actually very simple.
At half time in the huddle the phrase “Clean happiness” was picked up by the microphone in describing the way they wanted to play. I loved this as it encapsulates what playing for a great side is all about. The complex and difficult game is simplified into a relatively small number of decisions. With practice this become second nature and, as a result, the players and the team perfect the art of making the right choices. This leads to total confidence in the system and in each other. Look at the All Blacks. They actually have simplified the game and, almost perfected it.
Why can we not do it in fifteens? Why do we see so little improvement? Last week was average at best and we won against a poor side. Today we will be hard pressed to beat Wales even with so many home players missing. There are rumours that it will be the swan song for the coach, regardless of the result. Sadly, for he is a nice guy, I hope so. He has managed to complicate things for the Bok players rather than simplify them. That is why we look confused and, to be frank, dumb. We play with brawn not brain. Our sevens team play with brain and brawn and skill and speed. It starts with brain…
The great artists in sport make things look easy. The great coaches prepare their players to do the same. We need to find one and fast.