Roller coaster ride for SA rugby

Week­end Ar­gus rugby re­porter Gavin Rich looks at the 2010 sea­son and hands out his awards

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

BACK in late Jan­uary when the first feel of the new rugby sea­son was car­ried on the hot sum­mer winds in the form of a tri­an­gu­lar tour­na­ment at New­lands, you would have risked be­ing cer­ti­fied as crazy had you ven­tured to pre­dict what has tran­spired dur­ing an un­pre­dictable 2010.

The three teams in­volved in that event were the Storm­ers, Sharks and the Western Force.

The Storm­ers hadn’t fea­tured in a Su­per Rugby semi-fi­nal in sev­eral years, so a place in the top four was the best most long-suf­fer­ing Cape fans would have hoped for.

Yet their team ended up dom­i­nat­ing the com­pe­ti­tion for much of the way be­fore los­ing to the Bulls in the fi­nal.

The Sharks had no price back then, and were well beaten by both the Storm­ers and the Force.

They went on to lose their open­ing five matches in the Su­per 14. But they cor­rected their game and ended up win­ning the Cur­rie Cup fi­nal nine months later, beat­ing the Storm­ers’ do­mes­tic sea­son iden­tity, Western Prov­ince, in the fi­nal.

The Force were coached by New Zealan­der John Mitchell.

By the end of the sea­son he was coach of the Lions, and what a huge stroke it was on that union’s part to em­ploy him.

By Oc­to­ber the Lions were show­ing signs of resur­gence, and Mitchell showed that the Jo­han­nes­burg union did have tal­ent – that tal­ent just needed to be coached.

Which is what you would say about South African rugby as a whole at the end of a sea­son which started out with the nation’s rugby depth be­ing un­der­lined by the ap­pear­ance of two lo­cal teams in the Su­per fi­nal but which ended with the Spring­bok coach be­ing happy that his team lost by only six points to a scratch Bar­bar­ians out­fit that had never trained to­gether.

That there is tal­ent here, and that there are good coaches, was abun­dantly ev­i­dent in the Su­per 14 and again in the Cur­rie Cup where the Sharks in­tro­duced a new way of play­ing to South African rugby.

But if you looked at the Spring­boks you would think that there was only testos­terone and brawn and no guile and fi­nesse, for it was a calami­tous year at that level as all the mis­giv­ings about the weak­nesses of hav­ing the play­ers run­ning the show were proved cor­rect.

Even the finest and most ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers need to have strong coaches driv­ing them to safe­guard against com­pla­cency and they also re­quire tac­ti­cal in­tel­li­gence in the back­room staff to en­sure that the team stays abreast of tac­ti­cal in­no­va­tions in a con­stantly evolv­ing sport­ing code.

On both fronts the Boks were caught out this year, with the changes in the in­ter­pre­ta­tion at the break­down cry­ing out for a shift to the ap­proach that Peter de Vil­liers paid lip ser­vice to when he first ar­rived in the job.

Some­how, though, the Bok coaches, prob­a­bly be­cause a core of con­ser­va­tively minded se­nior play­ers were guid­ing them, did not show any sign of ab­sorb­ing this, and by the end of the sea­son, dur­ing their tour to the UK and Ire­land, they seemed to be stam­ped­ing back to the past at an alarm­ing rate.

If he had been coach­ing any other nation, or if he had been any­one other than the first black Bok coach, Peter de Vil­liers would cer­tainly not have seen out the year.

There again, it’s hard to imag­ine that any other coun­try would in the first place have ap­pointed a can­di­date who came last in the tech­ni­cal tests held dur­ing the re­cruit­ment process.

Some ar­gue that the World Cup is what it is all about and it is true that with their tal­ent, the Boks can still catch a team like New Zealand with a sucker punch on a given day.

But to be recog­nised as true lead­ers in the game, which they should be given the tal­ent avail­able, it re­ally isn’t enough to just pro­duce the goods ev­ery fourth year at the World Cup.

With its mas­sive tal­ent pool avail­able, South Africa should have reigned as world cham­pi­ons in style since 2007, but have failed to do so.

The de­cline of the stand­ing of the World Cup cham­pi­ons was un­der­lined by the fact that on the re­cent tour sta­di­ums that were sold out sev­eral weeks be­fore for the matches against the All Blacks were half empty for the Bok games.

The peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for that are not the Bok coaches but an ad­min­is­tra­tion filled mostly with peo­ple who are high on in­ex­pert­ness but low on de­ci­sive­ness and rugby knowl­edge.

Not that it was all bad, for there were some firsts in 2010 that should be cel­e­brated, such as the play­ing of a Su­per 14 semi-fi­nal and fi­nal in Soweto plus the stag­ing of a Spring­bok-All Black test at Soc­cer City in the nearby Nas­rec re­gion of Jo­han­nes­burg.

At the end of 2010 though it is hard not to look back on the year and feel that all the strides for­ward were made by the prov­inces and fran­chises but those re­spon­si­ble for the na­tional team were walk­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

My award for 2010 are as fol­lows: Monty Python Fly­ing Cir­cus Award To the Saru ad­min­is­tra­tion who run the game in this coun­try as com­pe­tently as John Cleese’s fa­bled char­ac­ter Basil Fawlty ran Fawlty Tow­ers. The Sink­ing of the Ti­tanic Award The fault re­ally lies with the peo­ple who ap­pointed them, but it was nonethe­less the Spring­bok coaches who al­lowed this mag­nif­i­cent ship to sail straight into an ice­berg. The rhino hide award To the Spring­bok as­sis­tant coaches who went on tour to the UK and Ire­land even though they had suf­fered the pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion of their head coach seek­ing al­ter­na­tives. The foot in mouth award Who else but Div? It started even be­fore the in­ter na­tional sea­son started when he railed through the me­dia against his man­age­ment team, thus send­ing out the mes­sage to the world that the Bok man­age­ment group were any­thing but a har­mo­nious bunch. Mas­ter-stroke of the year This goes to Dick Muir for bring­ing John Mitchell to South Africa. Fairy­tale of the year The Sharks started off as no-hop­ers and lost five on the trot in the be­gin­ning and yet were able to bounce back to win the Cur­rie Cup in fine style. The re­builder of the year John Plumtree told me be­fore the Cur­rie Cup that the com­pe­ti­tion was go­ing to be all about re­build­ing. If that is an ex­am­ple of re­build­ing, maybe he should be em­ployed to re­build Baghdad. Coach of the year His team didn’t win any tro­phies but con­sid­er­ing where they came from to com­pete in two ma­jor fi­nals Al­lis­ter Coet­zee wins this one nar­rowly from Plumtree, whose coach­ing staff were re­spon­si­ble for the great­est in­no­va­tion in 2010. Team of the year The Sharks rein­vented the way they play and showed the na­tional team the di­rec­tion they should be head­ing. Pro­vin­cial union of the year Western Prov­ince didn’t win se­nior tro­phies but they were rep­re­sented in ev­ery fi­nal and won both age-group tro­phies. Man of the year award Rassie Eras­mus for turn­ing Cape rugby around. The what the heck hap­pened to you lot award This goes to the Spring­bok Sevens team for fol­low­ing up their out­stand­ing pre­vi­ous sea­son by bomb­ing spec­tac­u­larly in the Sevens sea­son com­pleted in June. Com­ing to think of it, the se­nior Bok team should also qual­ify for this one. Party of the year The Sharks coaches were fun com­pany into the wee hours of the morn­ing fol­low­ing the Cur­rie Cup fi­nal and had it not been for the early morn­ing flight back to Cape Town that was booked I might still be there. But noth­ing quite beat the af­ter-party fol­low­ing the Var­sity Cup fi­nal in Stel­len­bosch. Did I say af­ter-party? No, the whole event was a party, from start to fin­ish. New­comer of the year Pat Lam­bie Out­stand­ing per­former of the year He only played in the Su­per 14 but no South African rugby player was bet­ter in 2010 than Andries Bekker was for the Storm­ers. Try of the year The one that Bryan Ha­bana fin­ished off for the Stor mers against the Chiefs and which was played over and over again on tele­vi­sion for sev­eral weeks af­ter­wards. Low point of the year The two over­seas games against New Zealand pip the loss to Scot­land. The most ridicu­lous se­lec­tion There were many at Spring­bok level, but the se­lec­tion of Ryan Kankowski as a blind­side flank and at the ex­pense of a fetcher for a match against Aus­tralia and David Po­cock was about as dumb as it gets. The put up and shut up award He is an in­tel­li­gent man and an in­tel­li­gent coach so good­ness knows how Gary Gold still man­ages to keep him­self from get­ting frus­trated by some of the de­ci­sions that are made in his name. Most uned­i­fy­ing sight The Bok for­wards high fiv­ing one an­other af­ter push­ing the Bar­bar­ians off the ball in a scrum last week. It was a Bar­bar­ians match, for good­ness sake, and in keep­ing with the Bar­bar­ians tra­di­tion the op­po­si­tion had made so many re­place­ments that their sec­ond row had be­come like a back row. Team per­for­mance of the year Stor mers beat­ing Cru­saders 42-14 was hard to beat. The Na­ture’s Gift Award This goes to what­ever nat­u­ral el­e­ments con­spired to in­vite a swarm of bees onto the field as the Cur­rie Cup semi-fi­nal in Dur­ban was about to kick off. Some of the Bulls reck­oned it put them off their fo­cus. The how dumb can you be award To all those who failed to see the ef­fect the law in­ter­pre­ta­tions had on the way rugby is played and who then dis­played their crass ig­no­rance by ac­cus­ing those who cham­pi­oned pos­ses­sion based rugby of mak­ing an about turn on their stance in 2009, when of course the laws were dif­fer­ent and rugby was thus played dif­fer­ently. There again, the Bok man­age­ment don’t seem to see it ei­ther…

ABOVE HIM ONLY SKY: Andries Bekker was out­stand­ing in a sea­son cut short by in­jury.

Coet­zee… top coach

Ha­bana… best try

Lam­bie… new­boy

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