Bring back the fetcher, says Meyer

CityPress - - Sport - SIMNIKIWE XABANISA sports@city­press.co.za

For­mer Spring­bok coach Heyneke Meyer has cau­tioned South African Su­per Rugby sides against their new­found pen­chant for play­ing with­out spe­cial­ist open­side flankers in their games, say­ing it’s a tac­tic that will af­fect the na­tional team in the long run.

In the first three rounds of this year’s tour­na­ment, open­side flankers have been thin on the ground, with the “fetcher” role be­ing shared among the three loose for­wards and, some­times, the hook­ers or which­ever back­line play­ers don’t mind pok­ing their heads into the ruck fur­nace.

Look­ing at the not-so-dis­tant past, the ba­sic roles of the loose trio were de­volved as fol­lows: the open­side flank played to the ball, the blind­side flank gen­er­ated mo­men­tum, be it in de­fence or at­tack, and the eighth man was the link and there­fore the dis­trib­u­tor be­tween backs and for­wards.

But ac­cord­ing to Chee­tahs head coach and Bok as­sis­tant coach Franco Smith, whose usual loose for­ward com­bi­na­tion is Uzair Cassiem, Oupa Mo­hoje and Paul Schoe­man – none of whom is a spe­cial­ist fetcher – the game has de­vel­oped be­yond that.

“I can’t speak on be­half of ev­ery­body, but I be­lieve ev­ery flank and ev­ery eighth man must have the same abil­ity in terms of steal­ing the ball, slow­ing down and speed­ing up rucks,” he said. “Why have one guy when you can have three do­ing the same job? Ob­vi­ously, they are bet­ter at cer­tain things than oth­ers, but it’s about up-skilling and get­ting guys to prac­tise do­ing every­thing.

“I be­lieve in giv­ing the play­ers the ca­pa­bil­i­ties to do all of that with­out over­com­mit­ting to the break­down. That way, you don’t have to have one guy chas­ing after break­downs, you can have three at dif­fer­ent spots on the field still con­test­ing and slow­ing it down.”

Meyer – whose first act as Spring­bok coach in 2012 was snub­bing South Africa’s best open­side at the time, Hein­rich Brüs­sow – has said he had made a mis­take by not pick­ing Brüs­sow be­cause he had come from a back­ground of coach­ing Su­per Rugby, where fetch­ers had be­come less crit­i­cal to teams suc­ceed­ing.

“Be­cause the laws kept on chang­ing, the open­side flankers were at­tract­ing the ref­er­ees’ at­ten­tion be­cause the laws were in favour of the at­tack­ing side,” he said.

“Ev­ery­body wanted to see good rugby and that meant quick ball, so the ref­er­ees were look­ing to pe­nalise the fetch­ers, who slowed things down as a re­sult.

“I don’t think Su­per Rugby has al­ways had a fair con­test for the ball. So when I started with the Boks, I looked at an open­side’s steals ver­sus the penal­ties con­ceded, and I thought it [se­lect­ing a fetcher] wasn’t a risk worth tak­ing.”

But the catch was what hap­pened in in­ter­na­tional rugby: “I hadn’t re­alised that 80% of our games would be ref­er­eed by refs from the north­ern hemi­sphere. If you look at most of the games we lost, they were ref­er­eed by French ref­er­ees, who just let rucks be­come a free-for-all.

“That’s when you need a spe­cial­ist open­side flanker to get you quick ball in at­tack, and that’s why I re­cruited [break­down spe­cial­ist coach] Richie Gray.”

Meyer also feels that peo­ple mis­un­der­stand the fetcher’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties on the field.

“An open­side is the first guy to a break­down; he is the main de­fender around the ruck; and re­spon­si­ble for gen­er­at­ing quick ball and slow­ing the op­po­si­tion’s ball down. Peo­ple only want to look at steals and tick that box, but it’s not the most im­por­tant thing.

“He needs to hit ev­ery third ruck. Peo­ple like to fol­low New Zealand, but they don’t un­der­stand that [re­tired for­mer All Blacks cap­tain] Richie McCaw played to the ball.”

Meyer also aired his con­cerns about South Africa’s ap­proach to the break­down.

“When you talk break­down with coaches, they think you’re talk­ing phys­i­cal­ity. That’s why our Su­per Rugby sides hardly ever get quick ball and have the worst tech­nique at ruck time.

“As a na­tion, we’ve fallen be­hind with our tech­nique at the break­down. This is be­cause you don’t get open­side flankers from school­boy rugby be­cause the ref­er­ees nail them at that level. That’s why I had to turn [Bulls open­side] Roelof Smit from an eight into an open­side. We just don’t have the skills.”

Meyer added that sim­ply copy­ing what New Zealand was do­ing wasn’t the an­swer: “The All Blacks like to leave a loosie like Kieran Read in the wide chan­nels. Here, we do it with open­side flankers, which takes them out of the game.

“New Zealand have re­ally good open­sides, but they can strike a bal­ance in how they do their work be­cause they are left to roam and de­cide when to strike.”

As a na­tion, we have fallen be­hind with our tech­nique at the break­down HEYNEKE MEYER

PHOTO: STEVE HAAG / GALLO IMAGES

CAU­TIOUS For­mer Spring­bok coach Heyneke Meyer warns of play­ing with­out open­side flankers

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