Bok tactics questioned
On Saturday the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup encounter between the Wallabies and All Blacks was an intriguing affair for more than one reason.
Firstly because of the distinctly different attacking game plans of the two teams and secondly to see whether the All Blacks’ superior experience, both in terms of average age and Test caps would give them any clear advantage over the inventive Aussies, if at all.
On the first aspect, namely, the distinctly different attack strategies, it has always been a contentious debating point on whether coaches should decide on a game plan and coach their players rigidly to implement it, or whether coaches should first avail themselves of the talent in their squad and then formulate a game plan that fit the strengths of his players.
Depending on the success with these approaches we then categorize coaches as average, good and excellent. Robbie Deans has for years been recognized as one of the top coaches in world rugby and this hasn’t change, well not yet.
In fact, despite his reputation as the most successful Super Rugby coach he has not been able to achieve the same level of success with the Wallabies.
Comparing the Wallabies game strategy with that of the All Blacks one finds two very distinct approaches. The recent success of the Reds in Super Rugby has in a way forced Deans’ hand in the direction of the flat, fast and high risk attacking game for the wallabies. In fact, the inclusion of key Reds players in pivotal decision-making positions leaves him with very little choice but to go that route.
At the centre of his plan is the innovative but highly erratic Quade Cooper, a player so versatile and full of ideas that it can be more counter-productive than beneficial at times. Saturday was a case in point.
The flat game did not work, mostly because the All Blacks’ technical team worked out a counter to Cooper and Genia which was most effective on the day – I believe this is where the 2011 RWC is going to be won: the ability of technical analysts to unravel opposition game strategies and attacking ploys and then developing counters to neutralize them.
The team with the best technical personnel and an understanding of the game and its subtle nuances is the team that is going to win the cup.
It was clear from their approach in defence that Graham Henry’s technical team did their homework very well, in fact, it was so obvious that they focused on one thing and that was to cut space and time with ball in hand, of the Wallabies’ decision-makers, Genia and Cooper.
This was primarily the job of Reid and Carter by shooting up at Cooper both from static and second phase plays. However, this was only half the tactic.
The second part was to get defenders to loop or fan wide across the field whenever Cooper went for the fast, flat ball pass. This required defensive discipline and concentration of a high standard which the very experienced All Blacks consistently delivered, except for the blindside break late in the first half which gave Digby Ioane his try.
Which brings me to the aspect of experience: The All Blacks fielded over 750 Test caps while the Wallabies had fewer than 400, a huge difference.
The value of this came out clearly in the way the All Blacks manage to stay calm when under siege in their own 22m as well as turning key line-breaks and turnovers into points.
Experience and match temperament has a whole lot to do with success at the highest level and the All Blacks have lots of that. Selection choices and established combinations also played a vital role.
The welcome return to form of Piri Weepu, the seasoned Smith/Nonu midfield partnership and the highly successful loose trio in McCaw, Read and Kaino, all made for a good day at the office for Graham Henry.
The present Springbok squad has over 800 Test caps and an average age in the late 20’s as well. In fact, based on the fact that some of these players have won the RWC before and has that added experience, edge over the New Zealanders, it should put them mentally ahead of the competition – that is if the age and experience argument holds true.
However, I would content that the one factor where there is a question-mark over the Springboks is whether we have the technical back-up team to out-maneuver or outwit those of our opponents.
Is Rassie Erasmus now “in charge” of technical analysis or is he merely an advisor to the coach? What is Dick Muir and Gary Golds’ role function when it comes to deciding on game tactics? How exactly will all of them be working together to ensure that the players appreciate and grasp what they have to do to unlock the defenses and shut down the attacking plays of our opponents?
Notwithstanding all of the above, in the final analysis it will still boil down to how these tactics, counter measures, attacking and defensive ploys are executed by the players on the field on the day!
We will certainly get a glimpse of their (coach, technical team, players) effectiveness in Durban and Port Elizabeth over the next two weeks.
Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player and current Afrikaans rugby commentator on SuperSport.
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