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SA's derby mentality is just different

The most recent round of Vodacom Super Rugby provided a response to the perception that had started to circulate that New Zealand rugby had somehow moved to a different level in the time that has elapsed since the end of last year’s competition.

It wasn’t a perception that was without merit, certainly when it came to the view that the type of game played in New Zealand is different to what we play in South Africa. On the opening weekend of the full round of Super Rugby, those of us who were able to do so on what was a working morning for many, were fortunate to see the Chiefs and Highlander slug it out in a spectacular advertisement for the game.

Later on that Friday, however, at Loftus, the Bulls and the Stormers played each other in a match that would have had visitors from outer-space wondering if the teams were playing the same sport as the one they had seen in Dunedin earlier in the day. If that game tested the patience of those who want to be entertained, the match in Durban between the Sharks and the Stormers was even worse.

This was again rugby from a different planet from the one inhabited by the two teams we had seen playing in Auckland the day before, when the Blues scored five tries in comprehensively outplaying the Crusaders. And that was what begged the question – has New Zealand moved ahead?

The answer was provided this past weekend. In enthusing about the Dunedin spectacular that started the competition in my match report of that game, I did note that the defence left a lot to be desired. The accent on attack, and the attitude of the teams, contributed in no small part to the aesthetics of the game by offering attacking opportunities to their opponents.

It didn’t take long for me to spot the difference when the match between the Stormers and the Chiefs started at Newlands. You couldn’t fault the Chiefs’ commitment, but they weren’t as in your face with their defensive effort against the Stormers as the Sharks and the Bulls were in the preceding weeks. They weren’t closing up the space, they weren’t driven by testosterone.

It helped of course that the Stormers so comfortably won the collisions, particularly early in the match, and playing Damian de Allende at centre in this match was the right selection as he and Jean de Villiers were able to exploit the lack of size in the Chiefs’ back division. So the Stormers scored three tries, which is more than they had in their previous two games combined, and some of their supporters will doubtless put it all down to the Stormers having greater attacking intent.

Make no mistake, it is partly that, but the real reason the Stormers were able to show more was because the Chiefs, with the commitment they have to what we could refer to as a New Zealand type game, just gave them opportunities that weren’t there previously.

The aspect that former Springbok captain Corne Krige used to complain about in South African derbies is not there as much as it used to be. Krige used to sense that the local players almost wanted to kill each other in derby matches, and I was there the day in 2000 where the animosity between the players in the Stormers and Cats teams nearly spilled over into the post-match Newlands cocktail party.

But what is there, and which continues to stand the South African derby matches apart, is the perception that the winner will be the one that wins the physical battle. And if you look at the results of the key derby matches of the past few seasons, that has invariably been the case – there are few exceptions to the general rule that South African derbies are arm-wrestles as much as they are rugby matches.

With the conference system now breeding the perception that when you lose a derby match you effectively concede double the log points to your opponents, there is now also an even bigger fear of losing. With that comes a ratcheting up of the pressure, allied to a greater leaning towards conservatism.

Remember too that the South African teams know each other so well. The coaches know each other, the players know each other and there are no real secrets about strategies and strengths and weaknesses of individuals and teams. What it leads to, particularly early in the season when players and teams don’t have the momentum needed for there to be the confidence necessary for an adventurous approach, is the type of rugby we see in the derby matches.

It’s not an indication that the South African teams are weaker than the overseas ones, or that the rugby is inferior. It’s just an indication that the mindset of the South African derby is different – with fear of failure, and the consequences that come with a conference rival forging ahead on the log, driving the game.

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