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Chasing the perfect game

After nine rounds of Super Rugby, the statistics reveal that the South African sides combined have managed the fewest tries. In contrast, but of no great surprise, our sides have conceded fewer tries than their Australasian adversaries.

Historically, SA sides are renowned for winning matches by defending well and gaining field position. The Bulls' archetypal game plan is the perfect illustration of this approach.

However, what the stats fail to show is that a number of our sides have focused on evolving their attack this season. Take for example, the Stormers, who topped the SA conference in 2012 but did so without scoring a single four-try bonus point. While a defence-orientated approach served the side so nobly in 2011 and 2012, their supporters where crying out for a more attacking mindset. The Stormers faced a barrage of criticism last season owing to the perception that they were too conservative.

Perhaps stung by this critique, Allister Coetzee and his coaching staff attempted to evolve their attack via a two-pronged approached. The Stormers not only changed their game strategy, but also changed playing personnel in key positions.

In came Nic Groom at scrumhalf and on-loan Lion Elton Jantjies at flyhalf. Public sentiment suggested that Dewaldt Duvenage and Peter Grant lacked the creativity on attack required to propel the Cape side to the next level. While one can take up that argument, I would like to stress that when you aim to evolve on attack, you often end up playing high-risk, high-reward rugby. While neither Duvenage nor Grant was spectacular on attack, they made very few individual errors.

Owing to the more attacking approach the Stormers have attempted this season, there is no question that their defence is now weaker. When you play more rugby you naturally concede more turnovers. However, the big question now is, should the Stormers bin the experiment altogether and revert to type? My answer would be a resounding no.

When coaches search for a solution in rugby, there’s never one obvious path to follow, which I believe makes the oval-ball game so intriguing to be a part of. As coaches, we try things and speculate. Sometimes it pays off and other times not. While I have often failed with a coaching idea, I have never failed to learn something from the attempt.

Hats off to Allister Coetzee who is open to innovation in order to evolve. I find it mind-boggling that some supporters are losing patience with a man that delivered their first Currie Cup trophy in 11 years.

Attack is a lot more complicated and time-consuming to perfect than defence and therefore it’s a process that needs to be afforded time to run its course. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back before you can go forward.

I would argue that the Bulls and Sharks are also attempting to evolve their games this season.

Every coach dreams of a team that is sound defensively, has the ability to play field position and possesses a potent attack – this remains the Holy Grail.

When Dan Carter wears the No 10 jersey for the All Blacks, I believe they are the one side in world rugby that comes closest to that perfect blend. However, in Carter’s injury-imposed absence during the latter stages of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks amended their approach. They were aware that pressure games require a more conservative approach.

The big debate is why do the Sharks and Stormers lack the ability to win Super Rugby finals?

Often the answer is because in finals, players struggle to play off-the-cuff rugby because the pressure is so intense. It’s normally the more structured teams that do well in crunch games as each player’s role is clearly defined.

At this point in time, I would suggest that the Cheetahs are the one South African side who have come closest to finding the ideal balance between offence and defence.

However, in spite of the fact that the Cheetahs are giving the ball more air, they are more successful this season not because of an impressive attack, but rather because of a resolute defence.

It’s interesting to compare the Cheetahs and Stormers. After last season, the Cheetahs would have said to themselves: we have a great attack, let’s tighten our defence; conversely the Stormers would have said: we have a great defence, but need to sharpen up offensively. As things stand the Cheetahs are closer to the Holy Grail than the Stormers.

The Cheetahs travel to Durban to face the Sharks this Saturday. While some readers may suggest I have been over-critical of the Sharks this season, I would respond by saying that I simply can’t see what they are trying to achieve.

If you ask me, do the Sharks play off nine or ten, do they kick the ball, are they defensively-minded or are they a set-piece-driven team? I can’t actually give you a definitive answer. For me, they lack an identity.

Although John Plumtree’s men are still a powerful side, I believe that there are potential defensive holes which the Cheetahs can exploit. There are a few youngsters in the Sharks side who at times tend to get things wrong defensively.

With the Cheetahs’ new-found confidence on defence and a Sharks attack which hasn’t been brilliant this season, I sense we could be in for a surprise result. I’m tipping the Cheetahs to edge the encounter.

Turning to the Kings/Bulls clash, while beating the Kings is no formality, I think the Port Elizabeth-based side will do well to stay within ten points of their visitors this Saturday. Yes, the Bulls weren’t perfect against the Cheetahs, but they displayed a massive amount of intensity. I believe that the Bulls will win this match by physically dominating and out-muscling the Kings.

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