Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok flyhalf BRAAM VAN STRAATEN discusses the science of kicking, why Australian players are smarter than their SA counterparts and offers a score prediction ahead of the Perth Test.
Sport24 asked: What does your work the Investec Rugby Academy and the Western Force entail?
Braam van Straaten: I have served as Investec Rugby Academy’s advanced groups head coach for close to six years now. My main point of focus is on the kicking and defensive structures. It’s incredible to see what can be achieved in such a short space of time when players receive the right technical advice. As far as the Western Force is concerned, I have worked extensively on the kicking games of six of their players. Sias Ebersohn has blossomed into my star student. When I started working with him he had every one of the ‘fatal flaws’ of kicking. He has matured both as a player and as a kicker, because he has put in an extensive amount of effort. For instance, we have had 56 Skype sessions since the end of January based upon analysis of video clips. Less than two years ago, Sias was in the rugby wilderness and now he’s signed a new three-year deal with the Force.
Sport24 asked: What were the adjustments you put in place which have led to the turnaround?
Braam van Straaten: First and foremost, I reduced the number of kicks he takes in training. As a player myself, I practiced so many kicks. However, as a coach I have learnt that it’s about quality rather than quantity. As such, my students are not allowed to kick for goal more than ten times per session. And if Sias misses his first three place kicks, for example, he will stop the session and upload the video clips for me to analyse. Kicking at a higher level can only be attained by being technically advanced at what you do. With Sias, we had to change his approach, his kicking tee, his body-in-sequence, and the angle and level with which is foot comes through the strike-zone.
Sport24 asked: What are the five fundamentals for improving kicking power and precision?
Braam van Straaten: Firstly, one needs to understand that kicking is not just a leg movement, but in fact a full body movement. Often hip-flexor, groin, lower-back and glute injuries come about as a result of not practising the correct kicking technique. Secondly, proficiency comes down to alignment either when kicking out of hand or off the tee. Thirdly, the most important component of sound kicking is posture. This is one aspect which has never previously been coached, and as such, players are really square in the way they approach the ball and have a tendency to kick too close to their bodies. Fourthly, power-stride and body-in-sequence is pivotal – the upper and lower body needs to move at the same speed and distance. And finally the run-up. As soon as mistakes are eliminated here, players gain strike extension, which results in the ball travelling 30 per cent further.
Sport24 asked: You once said that, “In my travels around the world I haven’t come across anyone that fully understands the concept of kicking a rugby ball.” Do you still feel the same way?
Braam van Straaten: Yes, I do. People may think I’m arrogant for saying so, but I still believe that no one truly understands the concept of kicking the way I do. Only once you comprehend the technical information behind the skill will be able to master it. When you have kicked for a long time with the correct technique or have coached down to the finest detail, only then does it become an exact science. At the age of 43, I’m kicking the ball further and straighter than I did during my playing career... If I knew then what I know now, I would have practiced my kicking a lot less, which would have, in turn, enabled me to spend more time perfecting all the other skills of the game.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of South African side’s flawed execution of tactical kicking?
Braam van Straaten: While we possess talented rugby players in South Africa, I believe it comes back to technique. What’s hurting South African rugby is that we have been coaching structure for 15 years, and as a consequence, our players are not as technically skilled as they ought to be. Although our players can see the space, their technique doesn’t allow for them to hit said space, which is why, more often than not, our players kick the ball into the opposition’s hands. I maintain that angle of approach and kicking wider from the body will improve general kicking accuracy.
Sport24 asked: Do you therefore concur with Jake White who once described Australian rugby players as being “smarter” than their South African counterparts?
Braam van Straaten: I definitely do. Australians understand how to attack space, carry the ball and identify weak links in the opposition’s defence. In contrast, I believe South Africans sides and the Springboks, for that matter, are struggling at the moment because we lack numbers in attack and as a direct result are not exerting sufficient pressure on our opponents’ defensive structure. Moreover, SA players largely lack the technical understanding of where to pass, how to catch and where to run.
Sport24 asked: James O’Connor returns to Super Rugby next year. Is his talent worth the trouble?
Braam van Straaten: For sure. James is one of the most naturally talented players I have ever had the privilege of working with. I can also safely say he’s the most technically gifted kicker I have come into contact with. It will be good to see him back in Super Rugby and hopefully the Wallaby jumper. He brings something special and that certain X-factor. Having spent some time in the northern hemisphere, (with London Irish and Toulon) I hear he has matured as a player and a person.
Sport24 asked: What are your memories of the 2001 Test match in Perth that ended all-square?
Braam van Straaten: What I recall is that we were lucky to come away with a 14-all draw – Matt Burke missed a sitter in front of goal at the death. I also remember we had great support from South African expats at the Subiaco Oval. I think the Springboks can expect something similar on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How do you see the 79th Test match between the two countries playing out?
Braam van Straaten: With Morne Steyn at ten, the Springboks will employ a kick-orientated, territory-driven game plan in an effort to negate Australia’s dangerous ball-runners. I believe Steyn is a much better kicker than his opposite number Bernard Foley. Furthermore, with Victor Matfield back from injury, I see the visitors bossing the line-outs. While it promises to be a tightly-fought contest, I’m backing the Springboks to win 28-21.
Carel du Plessis
Joe van Niekerk