Ex Boks analyse RWC strategy
Cape Town - Given the team selections this year, it’s fair to use the words “curtain raiser” and “trial run” when you are talking about the Tri-Nations as that is exactly what this year’s instalment is for the Springboks and their antipodean foes.
Unlike the last three years, the Tri-Nations is not the biggest prize on offer this year and the big challenge for De Villiers and co, it would seem, is to find the balance between being competitive – and by that we mean winning without paying an unnecessary high price – and taking the steps needed to ensure that his team is at full-strength and the players at their absolute peak when they return to New Zealand for their World Cup campaign.
It was never going to be easy. However, if the Springbok management team had gone about this Tri-Nations tournament in a clever way, they could have laid a solid foundation on which to build on with an eye on the World Cup.
In an effort to find some answers, Schalk Jonker of Sports Illustrated magazine picked the brains of World Cup winning former Springboks James Small and Mark Andrews, and Sport24’s own Andrew “Tank” Lanning.
Please note that this discussion took place before the Tri-nations began, and was published in the August edition of the Sports Illustrated ...
What is the biggest thing you hope Peter de Villiers has learnt from watching this year’s Super Rugby tournament?
James Small: I would think he needed to draw up a list of key players and not play them in the Tri-Nations, or use them very, very sparingly at least. I believe it is vital for him to give his players as much time between now and the Springboks’ first World Cup game against Wales to recharge.
Tank Lanning: I actually don’t think he learnt a lot and I don’t think he watched Super Rugby this year hoping to learn a lot. I also got the impression when I was speaking to him that he has made up his mind and I think if you look at the provisional World Cup squad that he picked, he very much went back to basics. He’s gone for the experienced guys and the team that he has picked in the past. I think the fact that he picked guys like RuanPienaar, Francois Steyn and BJ Botha is also proof of that. But I think what he could have learnt if he wanted to, is that we have depth in every position in South African rugby with the exception of perhaps tighthead prop and fullback.
There has been a lot of talk about the Boks’ gameplan, with the coach publicly stating that he isn’t keen on changing too much. He is still convinced if the Boks execute it perfectly, they will beat any team in the world. Your thoughts?
Mark Andrews: It is fairly obvious for all to see that the Boks have been playing a Bulls kind of rugby by putting their opponents under pressure with the kick-and-chase game. And that’s all fine and dandy when you are dominating, but the rules have changed a bit, those Bulls players struggled at times during the season and the holes have been exposed. I think it is probably the best for the Boks that the Bulls’ gameplan has been exposed because if it hadn’t been and we had gone to the World Cup with it, we would have been in trouble.
But is there still time to change the gameplan?
Mark Andrews: If the coaching staff tryto develop a new gameplan for the Tri-Nations now, they will have a huge task on their hands. And then there will be the risk that all the Bulls players would want to go back to the old kick-and-chase gameplan. The reality is that it has been exposed and other teams in Super Rugby have shown that that approach does not work anymore and that there are plenty of ways to disrupt it.
Tank Lanning: In a funny way, I believe Peter de Villiers is going to be even more conservative than Jake White. I’m a huge Jake White fan and I think he is the ultimate student of the game. And his major point when talking about World Cups and what it takes to win them is that history repeats itself. He always said, and still stresses, that the World Cup is not a basketball tournament, it’s not Super Rugby. They are two very different tournaments. World Cups are won on kicking and defence – and I agree, even if it is a little boring. What the All Blacks have brought to the game is getting the ball away from the point of contact and keeping it in play. I still think there will be an element of that at the World Cup, which hopefully we have learnt a bit from. But realistically, at the World Cup, you’re not there to score four tries for a bonus point or lose within seven. You’re basically there to win.
Mark Andrews: Kitch Christie said World Cups are often won on kicking. It might not be a kick that wins you the actual final, but you rely on a solid kicking boot to get you through your games. Morne Steyn is a fantastic flyhalf when his pack is going forward, but he doesn’t manufacture anything from difficult possession. When he gets tough ball, he’ll kick it and give away possession. But who to play? I wouldn’t play Lambie, because I think he is going to get more and more exposed. It’s difficult.
Tank Lanning: I wouldn’t change much at flyhalf. I would still pick Steyn – who is always a better player when he has Fourie du Preez on his inside – and have Lambie on the bench. He is such an exciting player, but we need to see a little more of him in big matches. And they don’t really get much bigger than away-games against the All Blacks and the Wallabies. It’s great to know we have a capable flyhalf who will come off the bench and have a definite impact.
So a lot of first-choice players did not go on the overseas leg of the Tri-Nations. Was this a good thing?
James Small: I would say there are at least eight first-choice players who do not need to prove anything and De Villiers knows exactly what they offer. You need form going into a World Cup, so I agree with putting some key players on ice for now because let’s be honest – we are going in with a bit of a senior citizen approach.
Mark Andrews: I would have preferred to have seen those players performing during the Tri-Nations. We want the side to win, because their next game after the Tri-Nations is their opening game at the World Cup. And you can’t afford to head to the World Cup having lost three or four of your Tri-Nations games because that will be a big setback confidence wise. What I’m saying is you need those guys to carry some kind of momentum through to the World Cup.
Do the fringe players still have a lot to play for?
Tank Lanning: To be brutally honest, I don’t think these players should get their hopes up of breaking into the World Cup starting XV, as I believe De Villiers has pretty much settled on the majority of that team. But it is also a fact that modern day rugby is played by 22 players and not just 15 and I think in terms of those seven replacement positions, there are still places up for grabs. The Bok coach is probably still making his mind up on those and they are important spots to play for.
Let’s talk about John Smit. The guy has been taking a lot of flak from all corners, but the fact is he is still the Springbok captain.
Mark Andrews: I believe it was a really good move by Peter de Villiers to come out early and say Smit is still his Bok captain, because it plays a big part in establishing that stability that the Springboks will need this year. He may not be the best player at hooker, but the coach can still go and say Smit is his Springbok captain, although he might not be the playing captain. That will leave the door open for him to play Bismarck du Plessis and use John off the bench. I don’t believe you necessarily have to have your World Cup captain on the field for every game.
Tank Lanning: I would do it the other way around and have Smit start because for me Du Plessis is more the impact player. I believe Smit offers the team more when it comes to pure scrummaging and with the Boks looking a bit iffy at tighthead, Smit must surely be the guy to start. He’s a scrumming hooker and with him packing down next to someone like Jannie du Plessis – and Bakkies Botha behind the two of them, the Bok scrum suddenly looks a lot more solid. So you can have Smit do the damage upfront and then you bring on Bismarck du Plessis in the last 30 minutes or so to run riot. Just do not ever move Smit to prop!
James Small: The big problem I have with this, is that I am a little worried that Smit is more a translator for Peter de Villiers than he is the captain of the Springboks. But that being said I don’t think they can play without him. I think he can play cameo roles in all the games but I don’t think it should be more than that.
Do the Boks have enough depth?
Mark Andrews: In theory we should not have a problem. We had some players playing fantastic rugby in the Super Rugby tournament, but you never know if they would be able to make that step up to international rugby. So ideally you want your back-up players to have at least played a couple of Tests. You do not want to throw someone in the deep-end in a make or break game at the World Cup. What it boils down to is that I am not sure we have the kind of Test rugby depth that we will need to win this World Cup.
Tank Lanning: As I said earlier I am more than a little worried about the situation at tighthead prop. At loosehead I think we’re covered with the likes of Gurthro Steenkamp, Beast Mtawarira and even someone like Dean Greyling, but Jannie du Plessis will be the likely starter at tighthead and let’s be honest, he was not that convincing during the Super Rugby season. I don’t think BJ Botha is the answer because he has always been too small to make it in my book. I think someone like Werner Kruger needs to at least be in the mix.
What do you want Peter de Villiers’ constant message to his players to be?
Mark Andrews: The coach has to make sure that he has a certainty amongst his players and in his structure. He can’t afford to have one press conference where he says one thing and his media guy says another thing. He can’t afford to have his key players unsure if they will be playing. I think if you have that stability in your squad, it gives your players the confidence to just go out there and play.
Talking about key players, pick one.
Mark Andrews: It has to be Fourie du Preez. Things seem to work so much better for the Springboks when he is on song. He is very good at keeping the forwards and the backs together. You could see it in the Bulls side: when he wasn’t doing well, the whole team seemed to struggle to find rhythm. We need him to be back to his best.
James Small: I agree with Fourie du Preez, but I also think Jean de Villiers has a big part to play. I think we’ve got this thing won in the backline but then we need Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie, the best centre pairing in the world, at their best.
The above panel discussion was published in the August edition of Sports Illustrated. Look out for the December “Rugby World Cup” edition now on sale. Click Here to subscribe to either the print or digital version of the magazine.
James Small and Mark Andrews discuss the Bok RWC strategy (Gallo Images)