Frontal lobotomy is secret to closing the gap
The disappointment of seeing the Sharks lose to the Brumbies in the Super 12 had nothing to do with the nausea which afflicted me afterwards.
The so-called "boorish" behaviour of the Bruce Stadium crowd - does the writer
of that story wear ear-muffs when the jeering starts at ABSA Stadium? - was not
nearly as sickening as the oh so predictable response to the match by the local
"Brumbies win exposes gap in rugby standards", ran the headline of a Cape Town
Sunday newspaper. "SA rugby gets dose of reality," sang the lead story in the
city's morning newspaper on Monday.
Both stories brought up that old chestnut of chasms - chasms between us and
them, between our skill levels and theirs, chasms in class and finesse. Some ex-
players called for a dramatic overhaul in rugby structures, others said it was
time for South African rugby to rethink the game from the bottom up.
It had to happen, didn't it? During a season where South African teams (with
the exception of the Bulls) generally won more games than they lost, the doom
merchants were conspicuous by their absence. But there is nothing quite like a
defeat in an important match to bring these people out of their hiding places
and to send the game into a downward spiral of negativity.
I am not saying that the writers of these stories are necessarily guilty of
this. What they wrote should have been evident to all who watched the game on
But then the fact that the Brumbies are more skilled than the Sharks, or indeed
any other South African team, is hardly news. Neither is it news that the
Brumbies play Brumbies rugby better than any other team on this planet.
I tried hard to prevent myself from asking the inevitable question, but I
cannot resist it: If the Brumbies win highlighted a yawning gap between South
Africa and Australia, what did it say about New Zealand? They had five teams
playing in the competition, but none of them made it into the top four.
And what about all those northern hemisphere teams that regularly get whipped
by the big three from the south? England, who I consider the best test team in
the world at the moment, would certainly look odd if they tried to play the
game the Brumbies way.
Perhaps we should hold back on the negative post-mortems and statements of the
obvious and look instead to the reasons why the Brumbies have achieved their
For me, the key is patience. No, not the onfield type we usually refer to, but
something that Brumbies skipper George Gregan may unwittingly have alluded to
in his victory speech after the match: "This win is not just for us, but for
all those ex-players who are as much a part of this win as we are".
The gist of what Gregan was saying was that the victory was the culmination of
an ongoing process, something which had started long before the current season
The Brumbies have not always been the epitome of excellence in the Super 12.
They never made the semi-finals in the 1999 season and were among the whipping
boys in the competition during 1998.
Of course, they were helped in the early days by the lack of real expectation
surrounding a team which represented a state not renowned for its rugby prowess.
But it still says something that in six years the Brumbies have only had two
coaches. The first one, Rod MacQueen, went on to coach the Australians to the
World Cup title in 1999. Their next change of coach will also be about
promotion rather than demotion: Eddie Jones is the red-hot favourite to coach
the Wallabies when MacQueen steps down at the end of the year.
Jones had a less than auspicious start at the Brumbies. I well remember my
first interview with him back in 1998. It was immediately after a 34-3 drubbing
at Newlands at the hands of a Western Stormers team that was nowhere near the
classy unit it was later to become.
Jones had presided over a string of Brumbies defeats. Had he been South
African, doubtless the critics would have started to call for his head. But the
coach refused to be put off by the results: "We know what we are doing. It will
just take a little time."
It did take time - four years, to be precise. In those four years Jones was able
to experiment in the knowledge that his job was secure. He was given the time
and space to mould a stable unit into a formidable combination.
The key positions - hooker/locks, halfback and loose-forward - remained
relatively unchanged for most of that time.
Contrast this with the South African teams. That the Sharks were the most
consistent local combination in the Super 12 in the initial years may have had
a lot to do with the perennial presence of the same coach in Ian McIntosh and a
core of players well led by Gary Teichmann.
For the rest, a high turn-over of playing personnel was matched by the coming
and going of coaches. Before Laurie Mains, the Cats (previously the Golden
Lions) had four coaches in as many years. The Bulls have been as bad. Before
Alan Solomons, the Stormers had Alan Zondagh and Harry Viljoen and they did not
participate in 1997.
Considering they finished in mid-table in the past two seasons and near the top
in 1999, the Stormers probably currently hold the mantle of being South
Africa's most consistent team. Could this be because they have had the same
coach for three years and have largely stuck with the same players.
Unlike the Brumbies, however, the Stormers were prevented by the perculiarities
of the way the regional system is implemented in South Africa from putting
together the succession planning that Solomons felt was imperative.
result, the loss of two star locks in Selborne Boome and Johnny Trytsman was
never properly covered. Neither was the suspension of Cobus Visagie.
The Brumbies, with the core of their team remaining together, were able to
bleed new players like Justin Harrison into established combinations. With the
rest of the backline settled, it was small wonder that latter day stars like
Andrew Walker, Sterling Mortlock and James Holbeck have been able to settle
down so quickly when called in.
Given all of that, it should hardly be surprising that the Brumbies have
finally cracked it.
But while the Brumbies are entitled to enjoy their moment of glory, Sharks
skipper Mark Andrews is right in suggesting that they have reached their peak.
It may be downhill for them from here.
The Sharks are a different story. They have a coach who has only been with them
for a year. They are not at the end of an era, or at the zenith of their
powers. They are just starting out. To go from last to a place in the final was
a stupendous achievement and as Andrews correctly points out, the Sharks will
get better. In time, they may develop into a combination every bit as slick as
the Brumbies are.
The point is that it will take time. Yes, the Sharks played crash and bash
rugby for much of the match against the Brumbies. But didn't that strategy help
them beat the same opponents back in March?
And wasn't that the strategy which, were it not for that late penalty from
Sterling Mortlock, nearly beat the Australians in the final Tri-Nations test of
2000. Coming to think of it, the South African brawn which has been so maligned
sinced the Super 12 final came within one kick of getting the Springboks into
the 1999 World Cup final.
Don't get me wrong. South African rugby does have much catching up to do when
it comes to skill levels. But the Sharks have shown such a dramatic improvement
in that regard in the seven months since last year's Currie Cup final that I
wouldn't bet against them pulling it off.
The Brumbies have shown that the attainment of the goals South African rugby
has set itself will require patience - and across many different levels. As for
the Springboks, the South African teams showed enough during the Super 12 to
suggest that Harry Viljoen will have enough of a blend between brawn and skill
to carve an approach which can win us the Tri-Nations.