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Boks must note SA culture change

When young Stormers centre Dan du Plessis spoke to the media following his team’s win over the Chiefs, he said one of the pleasing things about the performance was that the Stormers didn’t go back into their shells. They stuck to the adventurous brand of rugby they have played all season, even when the pressure was really on.

Does that remind you of something? It should. That, and similar things that the Stormers players and coaching staff have said this season, is reminiscent of what was coming out of the Lions camp a year ago when they were starting out on their journey to second place on the overall Vodacom Super Rugby log and a place in the final.

The Lions players used to speak about how their coach, Johan Ackermann, encouraged them to play without fear. The gist of it was that if you are prepared to venture, you have to be prepared to make mistakes along the way. That comes with the territory. The bottom line was, as Du Plessis said – there was to be no retreating back into shells.

We all know what happened after that though, once the Lions players had graduated to the Springbok camp under coach Allister Coetzee. Once the international season started they had to contend with a very different approach, one where safety first tactics were encouraged more than the joie de vivre and adventurous spirit that was advocated at the Lions.

And it had a big impact on the Lions players in the Bok squad. The Boks played the Lions way just once last season, and that was in the second half of the Emirates Airlines Park test against Ireland. The Boks were trailing by a big margin at the break, and the message went out that they must throw caution to the winds and up the pace in the second half.

At the same time the bench was emptied of the Lions players who were gathering splinters, and in that second half, although admittedly it did look like the altitude caught up with the Irish and they ran out of puff, it was like watching the Lions playing, they were just wearing Bok clothing. It was impressive rugby, easily the most impressive 40 minutes of South African rugby’s winter of discontent.

Instead of paying heed to what happened in Johannesburg, Coetzee spent a lot of the following week, in the build-up to the final test in Port Elizabeth, speaking of the need for balance. It was clear that playing for territory, rather than keeping the ball in hand, was going to be the approach. I often feel that with Coetzee it isn’t the message that is wrong but the way it is picked up, but whatever the case, the Boks were decidedly fortunate to scrape home in a forgettable decider at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

After that it just got worse for the Boks, with a fairly decent first half in the home Castle Lager Rugby Championship test against Argentina in Nelspruit leading into a second half where they started to fall apart and in the end they were fortunate to hold on for the win. The Pumas got it right though on their home field a week later, and after that it was just downhill.

By the end of the year, Coetzee was prepared to admit that he made a mistake in not basing his team and strategy more around the Lions and their approach at the start of the international season.

By the time he got to Cardiff for the last match of the year, which of course followed on from the harrowing loss to Italy, he also started to select a team and prepare a strategy that might have fitted what was needed in June. Unfortunately, by then it was too late, and one week isn’t enough time to change a whole playing template or for a team to suddenly suck confidence out of the sky.

Coetzee does have time now though, and he has spoken of the benefits of the national training camps that have been called during the Super Rugby season. Most South Africans will no doubt be hoping that, while we do have to acknowledge that international rugby is different to the other levels of the game, Coetzee doesn’t revert to his 2016 persona and discourage the spirit of adventure that is now adrift in most of the local franchises.

He is right when he says, as he did last week, that the players face different challenges at test match level. The aerial battle is a key part of international rugby but less so at Super Rugby level. For instance, Lwazi Mvovo was exposed by the Irish kicking game in Johannesburg last year, which was why he was replaced at halftime by Ruan Combrinck, but I haven’t often seen him tested in that area of his game at Super Rugby level.

Not that we should assume it is a weakness, because it will be recalled that Jake White selected him at fullback, but the point stands – Super Rugby is a different game to test match rugby. But it is not so different that the fundamental culture change that has been evidenced in South African rugby this year and breathing new life into the sport should be ignored.

You can’t play international rugby without fear, but you can embrace a style that is dynamic and adventurous. Just ask the All Blacks. And what has been good about the current playing renaissance happening in South Africa is that traditional strengths are not being neglected.

The forwards are still physical, and last week, while there were some excellent tries scored and the handling and running at times approached the sublime when they did have the ball, it was really the Stormers’ defence that won it for them. There has been some ordinary out of hand kicking at times but also some excellent tries scored from cleverly targeted attack orientated kicks too.

So there is no reason why the Boks should not evolve a game that is more inclusive and balanced than it has been in the past.

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