Rob Houwing

Bok power game must stay

2010-07-28 16:01
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing

Yawn. We’ve visited this territory before: the notion that Springbok rugby is all about “brawn over brain” and an over-reliance on a kicking game.

That’s been the case since the heyday of Gerald Bosch and Naas Botha operating behind gnarly packs and probably a fair bit before that, too.

Inevitably, it has reared its head once more, with various Antipodean critics tossing daggers our way in the wake of the Boks’ overseas-leg fiasco in the Vodacom Tri-Nations.

That provocative, Aussie-based scribe Spiro Zavos led the assault this week, gleefully starting his tirade with the suggestion that the Springboks are “dangerous clowns” for their attacks on referees (er, no, Spiro, just a recent string of infuriatingly inconsistent Irish ones, actually) and refusal to accept “the laws of the game” or punishments to their “thuggish” offenders.

All that is Australian has a saintly, valorous halo this week, of course.

He kicked the currently tottering beast further by suggesting the Wallabies’ “high-octane, ball-in-play style” was just too swift and smart for the “might is right” philosophy of the Boks.

He has a fair dinkum right to express his views. And I have to agree with Zavos to a degree on certain fronts: Bakkies Botha, with his return to brainless old ways via the unsubtle Jimmy Cowan head-butt, basically triggered a renewed school of thought beyond our borders that the Boks are more inclined toward dirty play than most.

As for the expensive Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie “tip-tackles” on the winless tour … well, they ARE firmly outlawed and you’ve just got to learn not to do ‘em, haven’t you?

But the suggestion that the Boks have suddenly fallen behind the times in formula terms? Baloney!

The rest of the rugby world, believe me, would love to see South Africa respond to their trio of Tri-Nations defeats by going violently against their long-standing, feared tradition and attempting to toss the ball around with some abandon.

They famously tried it once in Buenos Aires, after all, with a clear-cut Harry Viljoen instruction “not to kick” … and yes, they did score some pretty tries initially but also found themselves out on their feet and clinging on for dear life for the 37-33 result in 2000 against ordinary Argentina.

I’m all for flair, X-factor and spectacular tries. But I also unashamedly subscribe to the “beauty in brawn” school, because significant levels of physicality, applied intelligently, are part and parcel of rugby’s appeal.

There has always been something appealingly “blunt instrument” in South African rugby, given the big-boned individuals we produce, especially in the engine room.

Besides, what is wrong with an intriguing contrast or two in styles when rugby’s biggest teams meet?

Nor should it be forgotten that when juggernaut, properly motivated Bok packs establish a front-foot bridgehead, we are as capable as any other country of scoring eye-candy tries, particularly on the firm and fast pitches of our interior heartland.

No, the fall from grace of late is down mostly, I believe, to factors that transcend playing philosophy, even if tweaks with the times are both necessary and desirable.

This is well-worn terrain from me so I won’t bang on about it, but I repeat my assertion that several senior Bok cogs are off the pace primarily because of crazily excessive game-time, and ought to be – have to be! -- sharper after the current little recess period.

And accompanying these bankers’ mid-season recession, too, has been a pronounced fall-off in the areas of execution of Bok fundamentals, and precision … yes, the very things that tend to tilt Test matches.

Interestingly, there was a 15-minute period during the Brisbane defeat (and all praise to resurgent, deserving Australia on the day) when South Africa showed signs of the vitality and menace that had, let’s face it, seemed happily entrenched in our game until some three short weeks back.

Certainly I feel also that the eventual return of some key missing links, either from injury or because they have debatably fallen from Peter de Villiers’ favour, will go a long way to dissolving any feeling that the Boks have gone bankrupt of ideas.

The names of Fourie du Preez and Frans Steyn (ideally at fullback) come swiftly to mind: they were very essential elements of the Bok tactical kicking game and will be so again, provided that the latter can bury the hatchet with his head coach over issues we still aren’t wholly clear on.

And who were perhaps the two most mobile and nuisance-value forwards when South Africa won all three of their home Tri-Nations matches with a bit to spare last year? Heinrich Brussow and Bismarck du Plessis, both entirely absent for this year’s tournament but gradually “rehabbing” and the hooker much closer to fitness.

Of course I am fully aware of the changes with which the “tackled ball” area is being policed, but I also don’t believe they are revolutionary enough for the Boks to have been compromised to any lasting degree – indeed, the restoration of Brussow’s searing pace to the breakdown cannot come quickly enough!

South Africa have also let themselves down badly on defence, turning a once-renowned strength into a quite unexpected weakness recently.

Yup, the Boks have been their own worst enemies in so many respects; they have it within themselves to restore normal service.

Change their game dramatically? No, that’s not required, by my book. Not yet anyway.

It was only last year that the All Blacks were swinging the ball fairly desperately from all positions on the park in South Africa, and simultaneously running up cul-de-sacs as inspiring Bok “offensive defence” rocked them back on their heels and turnovers sparked scoring sprees the other way.

A wee reminder: the Springboks have won two World Cups in four attempts, a better strike rate than anyone else on the planet.

And we certainly didn’t win them by biffing beach-balls about. We kicked some sand in people’s faces, as it were, to the importantly discipline-dictated extent this is permissible – yes, still is -- in rugby’s laws.

I also retain some deep curiosity as to how these meteorically-risen, visionary (etc, etc) Wallabies will fare with their much-touted dynamism in successive Highveld meetings with the wounded Boks -- provided they have their camp-wide lustre and focus back - in a few weeks’ time.

Coming to Pretoria and Bloem, Spiro?

Rob is Sport24's chief writer

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

Read more on:    tn3  |  rob houwing  |  boks
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