John Smit’s biggest challenge in 2011 is to stir his troops

Former British Lion and indeed Gauteng Lion scrumhalf John Robbie raised the pertinent point in his Saturday newspaper column at the weekend of whether Springbok coach Peter de Villiers should abandon some of his pedigreed veterans when he picks his World Cup squad in favour of young mongrels.

Well we know the Bok coach won’t go that route – the squad of contracted players he announced in April contained almost all of the veterans of the last four years and illustrated that he is banking on experience to win the Boks their second successive World Cup title.

Well, two-in-a-row has never been done before at World Cup level, and maybe there is a reason why. World Cup history is littered with has-been teams arriving to defend titles or indeed to contest the title having narrowly lost out in the previous campaign, only to disappear without trace.

The million dollar question for coaches is when to know whether players are past it or still have it in them.

I will never forget Nick Mallett, years after the 1999 World Cup, discussing with me his admitted “monumental stuff-up” in dropping Gary Teichmann for the (ultimately injured) Bob Skinstad.

Mallett said that he had been influenced by a chat he had on the golf course with former All Black coach John Hart, Mallett’s rival in the late ‘90s. Hart had told Mallett that he had made the fatal mistake of hanging onto veteran All Blacks in 1998 (the year they lost five in a row) instead of retiring the Old Guard (including greats such Michael Jones) in favour of young blood.

Mallett said he had tried to avoid the mistake of Hart by retiring older players such as Teichmann before they had gone a season past their best – he also had no shortage of advice on this issue from assistant coach Alan Solomons, who was convinced Skinstad had the X factor to win the 1999 World Cup for the Boks while Teichmann could not do the same.

Mallett and Solomons gambled and lost. Teichmann was the pillar around which the Boks were built at that time, and they could well have won had he been at the helm, and in any case, Skinstad’s infamous knee injury had not healed and he was not a major influence at the tournament.

In 2011, the Teichmann case resonates once more. There are calls to drop John Smit, even though history in a clarion call shouts: “Don’t drop your captain in a World Cup year!”

Well Smit will not be dropped, and the core of the team will be 30 something veterans that played with vitality in 2007.

Will they have the same hunger this time around when, as Robbie put it, they already have World Cup winners medals on their mantle pieces?

We know Peter de Villiers has placed his trust in the veterans of previous wars won. Will they be able to respond and reward that loyalty? Can they possibly have the same hunger in 2011 as they did in 2007?

Should De Villiers not be bold and pick a team of ravenous mongrels with everything to prove?

I recall the defending champion Wallabies coming to South Africa for the 1995 World Cup with a team of superstars that had won in England in 1991. They proved to be utter dog poo. They had all the reputations in the world but there was nothing going on in their performances. The players had done it all before and just could not get out of the starting blocks.

John Smit’s biggest challenge in 2011 is to stir his troops (and himself) into a mental place where 2011 means as much to them as 2007.

Cup of Dreams at Encounters film festival Sunday 19 June @6pm

Cup of Dreams

Courtesy of the Director.

Beginning with the haka and ending with a valedictory on the merits of tribe, Shaw’s very personal ode to rugby—and his beloved All Blacks—will resonate with every sports fan, regardless of code or allegiance. Shaw is a New Zealander, unashamedly an All Blacks fanatic and from the first scene he sets out the terms of his wide-ranging film—it’s a story about home, heroes, obsession, the upcoming World Cup (the September 2011 games in New Zealand), the pain of the 2007 loss to France and about Shaw himself. Far from the more conventional stand-back objective approach to documentary filmmaking, Shaw puts himself full square and centre in the middle of his film, lacing it with an intimate, compulsive essence—and inadvertently a strange sadness. Interviews with everyone from his dad “15 Buddhas on the field, I don’t need another religion”, to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, paint a picture of a people and an individual so meshed into rugby that it’s impossible to tell where one stops and the other begins. As a French journalist suggests “we have 64 million people who don’t like rugby, but New Zealand has four million who live for it”.

Shaw is a Guest of the Festival and will attend a Q&A in Cape Town (Sunday 19, 6pm).

Bulls and the Boks and the world cup

Springbok rugby fans would have watched last week’s corralling of the Bulls by the rampant Crusaders with a growing sense of foreboding.

The men from Pretoria barely pointed a horn in anger at the Kiwis, despite frustrated captain Victor Matfield exhorting them to at least attempt a stampede. Instead they were reduced to a bunch of bovine beasts by a Crusaders team that read their every attempted move and countered it with ease, while when the New Zealanders had the ball, the Bulls often tackled like milkmaids, nevermind cows.

Why should those outside of Pretoria care? Well, because that encounter could well be a microcosm of what is to come in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup in six months time, when the Bulls will contribute much of the Springbok starting line-up, while the Crusaders are masquerading as the All Blacks give or take four or five positions – and they are still to get Riche McCaw back from injury.

The projection of how the RWC draw will unfold is that the Boks and the Blacks will meet in a semi-final – providing the Boks beat Wales, Fiji, Samoa and Nambia to win their pool, and the Kiwis are similarly undefeated in their group.

That foreboding we spoke about stems from the reality that key members of the Boks’ starting line-up in that anticipated October play-off will be Bulls players and, even more significantly, the Boks will be playing the same game plan that looked sadly anachronistic against a Crusaders team that is ahead of time, not dwelling in bygone eras.

What worked in 2009, when the Boks’ kick-and-chase game beat the British Lions and won the Tri-Nations, will not necessarily work in 2011. The game has evolved. It has moved on with the law focuses and for the first time in history the signs are pointing towards a team that keeps the ball winning the Webb Ellis Cup.

The Boks won 15-6 in Paris in 2007 with the famous “strangulation” technique that with relative ease saw off opponents during the course of the tournament. There was no need to score a try in the final.

But in 2011, Super Rugby is showing that teams worthy of the RWC final need to have more than one sharpened arrow in their quiver.

The Crusaders have shown that they can play the physical game and in fact dominate teams that pride themselves in that department, ie the Bulls. And they then have the backs to annihilate anybody.

But can the Bulls play another way? No, not while dogmatic Victor Matfield is the captain. The stubborn veteran is set in his ways and he will continue to tell his team that it is not the game plan at fault but the execution of it.

Well last week, first-choice Boks such as Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn looked like Bulls in need of a pasture to retire in, while contracted Bok Wynand Olivier’s defence against opposite number Sonny Bill Williams was disturbingly flimsy, although expected Bok No 12 starter Jean de Villiers will surely be much better, and we know No 13 Jaque Fourie will do the business. No worries there.

On the same weekend that the Bulls were humbled, the Stormers lost to a Reds side that more that matched them physically.

We know the Australian log leaders can run like the wind given the skill and the athletes in their team but at Newlands they chose a different, just as effective route, and they beat the Stormers at the physical game that prevailed for the Capetonians at Loftus Versfeld and Kings Park.

So we know the leading Kiwi and Aussies teams can play more than one style to get a result. But will the Boks be able to?

THE Springboks will be banking on this gameplan for the 2011 event.


THE Springboks will be banking on the game plan blueprint of the 2007 Rugby World Cup triumph at the 2011 event. This was much suggested in the naming yesterday of what amounts to be a preliminary Springbok Rugby World Cup squad that bares little difference to that of France four years ago and then confirmed when Peter de Villiers pointed to last November’s victory over England at Twickenham as the way forward, if that is the correct turn of phrase.

It is going to be a hugely contentious debate leading up the Boks’ title defence. Can the Springboks continue to successfully play the same way as ever while the game is continuing to evolve towards favouring the team that keeps the ball? Last year’s Tri-Nations hinted strongly that the strangulation game was up for the Boks but this was countered by De Villiers’ colourful contention that “the recipe was good – we just did not have the right pots and pans”, an allusion mainly to the absence of Fourie du Preez, the principle protagonist of the Boks’ brilliant kick-and-chase strategy of 2009.

As always in rugby, it is problematic to compare one year with another. In 2009, when a Springbok team at its absolute prime enjoyed unprecedented prevalence over the All Blacks, the Kiwis were in a rebuilding phase and the law focuses regarding freeing up quick ball at the break down were in their infancy.

The next year, the leaden-footed Boks were given a Tri-Nations hiding by adversaries that had bought into the new game. From champions in 2009 they won just once in 2010, a last-minute victory over the Wallabies in Pretoria.

The big question is this: is the Boks’ game plan out of date or was it simply a case of it being badly implemented in 2010? Can the Boks prevail in New Zealand or will the Cup go to a team that keeps the ball, which would be a first in World Cup history?

This year’s Super Rugby has already added fuel to the fire. The Bulls have Fourie du Preez back and while he personally does not look too bad, his team are playing wretchedly. Again, it is the question of whether it is the players (who are off-key) or the game plan.

De Villiers is convinced that the strategy is sound (make no mistake, the Boks played Bulls rugby on their end-of-year tour under Victor Matfield’s captaincy, not that it would have been different under John Smit.) And Bulls rugby is not far off what the Boks played under Jake White. To paraphrase – you dominate the set pieces and the tackle, you play territory with the kick-and-chase, you crank up the pressure via mechanisms such as the driving maul and earn penalties, and then you kick the goals.

The Boks were very poor at this against Scotland in November but then smashed England off the park, which is what De Villiers highlighted yesterday.

The thing is, England are not Australia or New Zealand.

The Sharks versus Crusaders match last week showcased rugby at its best and the Northern Hemisphere took serious notice.

But De Villiers did make one good point yesterday when he pointed out that competition rugby tends to be different to tournament rugby. Teams get increasingly conservative as the pressure cranks up.

Will this be the first World Cup where the team that keeps the ball wins? Again a question that nobody can really answer, which is what makes team sport so special.

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