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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

SA just needs to play smarter

Although there were 19 points in it on the scoreboard when the hooter sounded for the final time in the 2018 edition of Vodacom Super Rugby, the Lions defeat was not an ending that left South African rugby with confidence in tatters and feeling that there was no hope.

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will name his squad from the training camp in Stellenbosch on Monday and he will do so in the knowledge that while the country struggled overall in the southern hemisphere regional competition, he does have the raw material to continue the upward performance graph that was started in the series win over England.

We do need to be realistic though. That the Crusaders were able to win 35-18 in a match where they were mostly dominated in the battle for possession and territory points to a chasm that still exists between South Africa and New Zealand in key areas.

There have been inroads made over the past two seasons into that gap in skill-set. The drive to up-skill South African players was not going to meet with success overnight. But the process that was started with the decisions that were made and strategies agreed on at the Allister Coetzee inspired national coaching Indaba in Cape Town in October 2016 is underway, though some intelligence from the administrators in some of the franchises might be necessary for that to continue to the point where it bears fruit.

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If the Bulls, who may not have achieved better results this year in terms of numbers in the wins and losses column but who have dramatically improved their attacking play and up-skilled overall, think they can do without John Mitchell it would be a disappointing attitude and one that would show a lack of understanding of the process that has been started.

You just have to look at the additions to the all-round games of some of the Bulls’ Boks, Jesse Kriel in particular but newcomer RG Snyman is also an excellent example, to spotlight the progress that is being made in Pretoria. It is nonsense to suggest that the Bulls have the players to justify better results than have been achieved to now and that Mitchell’s plea to the Bulls administration for money to build a squad that will have proper back-up in each position is without merit.

The Bulls used to have a lot of depth. But over a period of a few years there has been a steady stream of talent out of Pretoria and when the injuries hit this year the Bulls were hurt more than they would have been in the past.

What the Bulls did do this year though was show flashes of promise of what could be achieved under Mitchell, and Erasmus, in his own quest to modernise South African rugby, will be a benefactor if it is allowed to continue.

But to suggest the gap that New Zealand enjoy because of the years of attention to core-skills while South African coaches neglected this key element is closed is far from the truth. It was highlighted by where the Crusaders got it right in the Christchurch final.

Make no mistake, the Lions would not have been helped by the travel they had to do to get to the decider, and given that massive disadvantage, they did make a good fist of it. What should please Erasmus is that the Lions showed against the Crusaders forward juggernaut that this country does have the resources to make an impression against even the best New Zealand packs.

We actually should know that already, as the Bok pack that played under Erasmus’ predecessor Coetzee nearly beat the All Blacks on their own in Cape Town last October. What was lacking was the skill and finesse plus, perhaps most importantly, the smartness that set the All Blacks apart and which enabled them to win on a day when they were physically dominated.

Coetzee’s last match as Bok coach probably underlined the weakness of his two year reign - the Bok forwards completely dominated Wales in Cardiff, and yet somehow lost the game. Or maybe the word ‘somehow’ is misplaced, for we do know what happened there. The Boks were just out-coached, with Warren Gatland’s tactics, his initial kick attack thrust, appearing to surprise the visitors.

The Lions weren’t surprised by the Crusaders to the same extent that the Boks were that day but they should have been quicker to pick up that the hosts had done their homework on their maul. Although the Lions dominated the early minutes in terms of possession and territory, it was the Crusaders who made the big statement by driving back the Lions at the attacking lineouts.

Further evidence of the way the Crusaders coaching staff had pinpointed the Lions’ strengths and devised ways to counter them was the way that Malcom Marx and Kwagga Smith’ ball winning abilities on the ground were completely negated.

There was another big factor that worked in the favour of Crusaders. Like the Lions they had a flyhalf who is at best No 2 in the pivot pecking order in his national squad. Before the game All Black coach Steve Hansen had stated that Richie Mo’unga’s good form was to be expected when playing behind what he called “the Rolls Royce pack”.

The message there was that Mo’unga had to show what he could do on a day when the Crusaders might not attain their usual forward dominance. The final provided that opportunity, and Mo’unga, with hardly any ball to play with, excelled with his game management.

Conversely Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies, on a day when he could not use the excuse that he didn’t have a forward platform to play off, struggled to impose himself. He tried to play at the gain-line early on but lacked the conviction needed and then when the heat was on he was dropping back into the pocket.

Christchurch was an opportunity for Jantjies to change the direction his reputation and his career appears to be heading that he did not take. Mo’unga took his chance, and while it is hard to see him displacing Beauden Barrett in the All Black starting team, Hansen can feel confident he has a man who knows how to direct play ready to take over should the Hurricanes man be injured.

Erasmus doesn’t have that luxury. The players beneath Handre Pollard are either untried or lack consistency and the necessary authority and influence in the really big games.

What he does have though is depth at forward that would be the envy of most other rugby nations. That’s a start and he’s a good enough coach to slip everything else into place in time.


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