South African rugby is being left behind by its traditional rivals because our former players do not give back to the game in the same way the Kiwis and Wallabies do, according to former Springbok flank Ian MacDonald.
“You can’t get out of a book what you can get from the brain of someone who played at the top level for 10 years,” MacDonald bemoaned this week.
“In other countries, it is part of the culture that former players go back to their clubs, or schools, and pass on the knowledge that got them to the top. Too many of our former players say, ‘thanks, I am done with the game, and am off to start my business now with the money I made out of it’,” he swiped.
“But they insist they have a great passion for the game. How deep is your passion if you are not giving back what you learned,” MacDonald argued.
The problems with our rugby, he pointed out, start at a young age, when size dictates which players are given special attention.
“Our skills set in primary schools is pathetic compared to kids in New Zealand. I went to a coaching clinic for juniors recently, and you could see our teams are still being picked according to size.
“The No 8 is the biggest, the scrumhalf can pass the ball best, and the flyhalf can kick it the furthest. Everyone else is there to make up the numbers, and that gets transferred into our senior schools rugby. We need to move with the times,” he warned.
The norm of “big is best” sees to it that creative yet slightly-built players are pushed to the periphery from an early age, and many of these rugby brains are lost to the game.
“In some countries, they play according to weight at school level. That immediately takes out the size factor, and the skills are able to come to the fore.”
Looking at the state of the modern game, the former Lions skipper said rugby union was moving closer and closer to rugby league, which placed greater emphasis on skills, instead of size.
“We’ve moved into territory we’ve never been in before. The laws of the game around the ruck mean teams are not committing big numbers there anymore. Players are numbering up in the line, and it effectively becomes a one-on-one contest.”
”This is why players like Sonny-Bill Williams and Israel Folau look comfortable when they make the transition from league to union. Their all-round skills – especially one on one – are far more complete, and they are very hard to stop.
“They can step you, create space for their outside runners, and their handling ability also allows them to still make the pass in the tackle. That is very hard to stop, but it is also something we need to add to our game,” he explained.
The Springboks have tried – and consistently failed – to bash, bully or batter the All Blacks every year. Horses for courses was an approach that may well serve Heyneke Meyer better than the current “brawn beats brains” preference.
Sharks boss Jake White recently had to field Willem Alberts in the second row against the Waratahs. The Sharks’ riches at loose forward – and their mini crisis at lock – made it a practical decision, and Alberts’ versatility saw him give the Sharks an extra dimension.
“He’s a reluctant lock, but he did a fantastic job. In effect, he was an extra loose forward, and his ability to carry strongly, and then help out on cover defence makes him a very good option there,” White said.
Meyer, without the blockbusting duo of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Step du Toit for the year, would do well to whisper sweet nothings to “The Bone Collector”, and look to keep him in the second row.
He is starting to run out of other options. If, as anticipated, Meyer picks Victor Matfield, the jumping genius needs a wrecking-ball as a partner, and one who can get around the park.
“Our tendency to pick bigger players worked back in the day, but the game is much faster now. Players used to run 5km a game 10 years ago. Now, they are doing 10km a game, so the big players struggle to keep up with that intensity,” he said.
“If we were to look at Pierre Spies (Bulls) and Warren Whiteley (Lions), there is a big difference in their build. Spies is a massive athlete, but if you stand next to Whiteley, he is not that intimidating. But you then look at their mobility, and Whiteley becomes a much bigger factor. Speed, skill and agility are now a huge part of the game. The Varsity Cup final was won by UCT because they kept trusting their skills to get them over the line.”
The World Cup is 18 months away, and it will take a lot more than a beefy pack and unerring boot to wrestle it from Richie McCaw’s clutches. The time for change is now. - Sunday Independent