JOHANNESBURG – The days of only one man having a licence to steal are well and truly over. That man, who would wear the No 6 or 7 on his back, is dead. Now every man in the team has a responsibility to steal.
The so-called “fetcher flank’ or the openside – usually one of the smaller men in the team and tasked mainly to win turn-over ball for his team and slow it down for the opposition – doesn’t exist anymore. It’s every man’s job now.
Some of the most famous and respected openside flanks in the game – like Richie McCaw and Schalk Burger – weren’t really even proper “fetchers”. They were so much more than just being pilferers of ball. Neither were Francois Pienaar or Rassie Erasmus – not in terms of how the specialist openside is defined.
Heinrich Brussow was probably the last Springbok to be a specialist fetcher – and boy, who can forget how he terrorised the British and Irish Lions in 2009. Not even Francois Louw, who wore the No 6 on his back for the better part of the past five years, is a ball-poacher extraordinaire. And the injured Marcell Coetzee neither ... they did the job excellently, but they were also far more versatile than the specialist “fetcher”.
Recent Bok coaches like Jake White, Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer only sporadically picked a specialist No 6 who was labelled a “fetcher flank”, and Allister Coetzee is now also of the opinion that you gain more with two bigger flankers in the mix rather than having one man who plays only to the ball – the job reserved for the openside man.
Eyebrows were raised when Coetzee selected Siya Kolisi and Oupa Mohoje as his flanks for the first two Tests against France this month. Many worried the Boks would battle to have enough ball to play with as there was no “fetcher” in sight ... Jaco Kriel, the only specialist No 6, was left out of the matchday squad. But suggesting he is the same kind of player as Brussow is stretching it. Kriel is not an out-and-out “fetcher” either.
Yet with two versatile flankers the Boks won the battle against the French in Pretoria and Durban, and that with Jean Luc du Preez coming into the game early in Durban – and he’s no “fetcher” either.
The thing is, every man must now be able to get to the breakdown quickly to either try win a turn-over for his team, to counter-attack from, or slow the oppositions’ ball down to allow his team’s defensive lines to be reset. If it hasn’t been Kolisi doing the pilfering in this series, it’s been the likes of Malcolm Marx, Jan Serfontein, Frans Malherbe and Franco Mostert – none of them flankers – getting to the breakdown first, getting their hands on the ball, and winning a turn-over or a penalty for their team.
In today’s game one doesn’t even need to make the turn-over – or the steal. One simply has to get your hands on the ball and show intent to take it away from the man on the ground and the referee will in all likelihood blow the opposition team up for “holding on”. It’s that simple. Anyone can do it.
Bigger flankers, like Kolisi, Mohoje and Du Preez, are being favoured because they are more capable of halting the opposition team’s momentum in driving mauls, they’re often more potent in the clean-out, they carry the ball more strongly than the little guys, they link well with the backs and they become lineout options.
Of course, the man who plays on the openside of the scrum – that is on the side where the backs line-up against each other, or the bigger part of the field – will usually be the first guy among the forwards to get to a breakdown, or tackle, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be the first man to try make the steal. That may be the flyhalf or one of the centres, or a wing, so it really is every man’s responsibility to know how to steal.
Jake White, who famously said if he wanted someone to do any “fetching for him” he’d ask his son to get him a beer from the fridge, may have had a point in preferring bigger players with more versatility; everyone needs to do some kind of “fetching” in a game of rugby.
White was never the biggest fan of Brussow – probably this country’s classic “fetcher flank” – and he made no bones about that. He once picked a backrow of Pedrie Wannenburg, Juan Smith and Joe van Niekerk, and who can forget his 2007 World Cup winning loose-trio of Danie Rossouw at eighthman, with Smith and Burger on the flanks.
Current coach Coetzee spent four years as White’s assistant and perhaps he learned a thing or two about fetchers, pilferers, pinchers and stealers. He certainly also favours the bigger loose forwards ... and when they play like Kolisi, Mohoje and Du Preez have in the two Tests so far this year, why would anyone go against him?