Soweto should get more top-class rugby

The Citizen (KZN) - - SPORT - @KenBor­land Ken Bor­land

Fol­low­ing the aw­ful dis­ap­point­ments of 2016, what a sheer de­light the last three weeks of Spring­bok rugby have been, cul­mi­nat­ing in the se­ries white­wash over France in front of more than 55 000 peo­ple at El­lis Park, as well as a won­der­ful game the night be­fore at Or­lando Sta­dium be­tween the SA A and French Bar­bar­ians sides.

Apart from the win­ning, up-tempo rugby played by both the Spring­boks and their sec­ond-stringers, the other sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the two teams is that both clearly en­joy a won­der­ful team cul­ture.

It can­not be un­der­stated how im­por­tant a role a good team en­vi­ron­ment will play in the suc­cess of a side and we saw last year how the Pro­teas cricket team dras­ti­cally im­proved their re­sults after a “cul­ture camp”.

At the top level, teams are very sim­i­lar in terms of phys­i­cal­ity, con­di­tion­ing and skill, so the cru­cial ex­tra 1% that gives sides the edge is of­ten found on the men­tal side of sport – happy play­ers com­mit­ted to a cause or a “brother­hood”, to use the in-vogue ex­pres­sion, will give more out on the field.

Sure, Bren­dan Venter and Franco Smith have come along and brought con­sid­er­able tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise to the Spring­boks, but I have never, in 25 years of cov­er­ing South African rugby, seen a squad speak more about just how happy they were to be to­gether and how much they loved the en­vi­ron­ment than the cur­rent group un­der Al­lis­ter Coet­zee and his fel­low coaches. The cap­taincy of War­ren White­ley must also be men­tioned be­cause there’s no doubt he has played a big role in the team cul­ture as well.

It is a sim­i­lar cul­ture, borne from ad­ver­sity, that is seen in White­ley’s Lions team and it is also ev­i­dent in the SA A side un­der Jo­han Ack­er­mann. It was clearly dis­played at the end of the game against the French Bar­bar­ians in Or­lando when scrumhalf Jano Ver­maak was spon­ta­neously, just for the sheer joy of it, lifted on to the shoul­ders of his team-mates after kick­ing the last con­ver­sion, and when the whole squad sang stir­ring songs to­gether, bob­bing in a tight em­brace, after the tro­phy pre­sen­ta­tion.

The fact that Ack­er­mann has man­aged to cre­ate that cul­ture in the SA A side in just a few weeks is tes­ta­ment to what a fine coach he is and hope­fully he will be back in South Africa soon after in­creas­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge with Glouces­ter in the United King­dom.

Ack­er­mann, a for­mer Spring­bok lock, first made his name as a coach through his tech­ni­cal and tac­ti­cal acu­men in the set-pieces, but he also has the abil­ity to in­spire a team, a cru­cial man-man­age­ment skill in any coach.

Singing along with the SA A team were a bunch of sup­port­ers in the far grand­stand and I be­lieve play­ing top rugby in Soweto has a great fu­ture. The SA A game was played at 8pm on a Fri­day night the day be­fore a Test at El­lis Park, so the crowd was al­ways go­ing to be small.

But I know it is in SA Rugby’s fu­ture plan to play more games in Soweto, and to stage them at 3pm in the af­ter­noon and not dur­ing a Test week in the same city. There’s no doubt we will then see the crowds pour­ing in, be­cause there is a great love for the game in Soweto.

Or­lando Sta­dium is also a mag­nif­i­cent venue, mod­ern, spa­cious and with one of the best views of the field, from any van­tage point, you will see. The fact that top rugby did not re­turn ear­lier to Or­lando after the mem­o­rable 2010 Su­per Rugby fi­nal that in­spired such good­will is a great pity.

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