Side Entry: The nerds are taking over rugby

2017-12-10 06:14
Simnikiwe Xabanisa.

Johannesburg - There’s a lineout story that neatly encapsulates what a simple game rugby was to play just a decade ago.

The Bulls were playing a Super Rugby game and when it came to the lineout Victor Matfield went through his old calling routine of “Agtien! Sewentig...” But just as the hooker was about to throw he yelled: “Bakkies joune!”

As that anecdote shows, Bakkies Botha may have played first class rugby as a lock for years but he didn’t bother with cramming lineout calls. Yet he had a full and rewarding career whereas no modern player can imagine getting away with not emptying the contents of his playbook “bible” into his head.

Rugby acumen

In the old days rugby was a complicated game played by simple men, now the nerds are taking over. I blame it on the introduction of NFL-esque stats to rugby. Back then player debates in the pub were about whether he was quick off the mark, had good go-forward, hands, an eye for the gap, distribution, etc.

Now you get some geek fluent in stat prattling on about how many carries he has, his tackle count, how many voyager miles the ball picked up from the boot and such other stuff spewed by other cats with thick glasses out there crunching numbers while the rest of us watch the game.

The height of how rugby is sadly becoming a debating society was when I caught a man whose rugby acumen I respect cooing about how Formula One-esque the stats from the Dubai leg of the World Sevens Series were on Twitter.

Needless to say, he didn’t even have the good sense to be sheepish when caught admiring gleaming rugby stats instead of players. One of these days we’re going to pick an entire rugby team based on their stats, with nary a consideration for such 1980s things as combinations.

A great example of this is why Springbok coach Allister Coetzee picks Andries Coetzee. Apparently the fullback’s GPS numbers run off the page he works so hard. That he makes playing rugby, or indeed passing, look harder than it is – and watching it even more difficult – doesn’t seem to matter.

Those great tinkerers at Varsity Cup are the latest to join the fray with their new “innovation” of a three-minute powerplay where a captain can nominate two backline players (who could be the nine and 10 or a two-thirds majority of a pesky back-three) to be taken off so they can have a crack at a 13-man side.

Corporate speak

Apparently one is only supposed to “level” the playing fields when in one’s own half, but nobody has touched on whether it can be done when the other team is already two men down owing to such frequent occurrences like sin-binning.

The explanation is that this is supposed to help coaches and players deal with being two men short in defence.

Forget that it is manufactured drama, in a country in which the players still pass directly to the overlapping man – instead of going through hands – it sounds an awful lot like admitting defeat when it comes to working out how to manipulate not a one, but two-man advantage.

Put it this way, you’ve never heard the All Blacks complain about the presence of 15 Springbok defenders en route to routing them 57-0.

Speaking of All Blacks, has anyone noticed Bulls coach John Mitchell has turned the rugby language into corporate speak? Mitch was quoted as saying of his players “They have a choice between SOAR (Standards Ownership Accountability Responsibility), or BED (Blame Excuses Denial)” this week.

Apparently his coaching methodology is called WTP (Weekly Tactical Periodisation), which may or may not rhyme with WTF.

The poor blighters in Pretoria can barely speak English, now they have to learn their acronyms as well as jol rugby. I can just imagine poor Bakkies trying to come to grips with enforcing a game plan that doesn’t include moering hulle.

Years ago, when I weighed 63kg of prime South African beef including the big hair, I fell in love with the game as a form of signing up for second-hand jockhood. Now there are more thinkers, philosophers and pontificators in the game than there are jocks.

Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa


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