Cape Town - Years ago, when I was young enough to blow smoke up my own backside, I was daft enough to momentarily rate myself as the best sports writer in my age group ... I know.
Then came a new colleague who blew my contention away to the extent that I realised that, not only was I not the best guy my age, I wasn’t even the best guy in the newsroom. Unsettled, I tried to compete on his terms, which meant trying to come up with miracle lines in every sentence of a story.
While my brain was melting under the pressure of trying to be a writer I wasn’t, it hit me that I had been reasonably successful before I met my colleague for a reason. So, I went back to trying to be better at what I’d always done well.
Watching the Springboks almost throw away the gains made this season by wilting 57-0 against New Zealand last Saturday, I couldn’t help but think back to that time. Forget that none of the game aspects worked in Albany, a big part of why the Boks were embarrassed by the All Blacks was that they wanted to beat them at their own game.
Beating the All Blacks has become an obsession for South Africans, but it has the potential to stifle our growth for years to come.
The main problem is that we still labour under the misapprehension that they are our peers because they were once our “greatest rivals”.
Looking at the results of games between the two since rugby went professional – of the 52 games played, New Zealand won 38 times to South Africa’s 14.
They also won 10 of the last 11 games, so there is more than enough there to suggest this is not exactly a contest.
The Boks’ 14 wins, which were celebrated long and hard into the night for the rarities they were (think Heyneke Meyer), have been so few that we can pretty much remember everything that we did on those days.
A strange idea seems to have formed in our heads – that beating the All Blacks is worth more than the obligatory four or five points that come with a win.
An even bigger issue is the fact that victories over the “old enemy” come with such a sense of achievement that the Boks invariably go completely off the boil afterwards. Winning is the equivalent of having mentally reached the summit of a mountain – think back to the 2014 win at Ellis Park.
Ironically, the best way to get back to being in competition with the All Blacks may be by ignoring them.
While there are a lot of things to learn from their systems – their coaching, central contracting, integrated approach, conditioning, spreading their selection net as wide as the Pacific Islands and empowering their players – we need to resist copying and pasting everything.
Because of our different set of circumstances, we need to borrow what we can use and discard the rest regardless of how good it looks on paper.
What we need to obsess over from here on out is staying in our lane, and not wasting time keeping an eye on what the All Blacks are doing to the point of not being able to accurately gauge what our problems are and how to solve them.
A great example is England’s resurgence under Eddie Jones. Much as Jones has visited everyone – including the Pakistan squash coach – in search of new coaching ideas, England hasn’t become more like the All Blacks in the time he has been there.
There may be a greater emphasis on playing intensity and other things such as grappling skills, but they still use a big pack, an abrasive defence, a good kicker and mildly improved skills out wide to win games.
Yet, England matched the All Blacks’ world record run of 18 test wins on the trot.
We also labour under the misconception that it’s our birthright to dethrone the All Blacks. The news flash here is that, as the Brazil of rugby, everyone else wants to do just that.
The thing is, to get to that position, you have to out-climb the other crabs in the bucket. To do that, you need to obsess about your progress against everyone – not just the All Blacks.
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