We Are All to Blame For the Springboks’ Demise

How we all contributed to our slow slide into mediocrity.

I don’t believe in collective guilt.

But every now and then, there is a time to recognise we are all somewhat complicit in something going bad – in this case, Springbok rugby.

So how can we all possibly have done something ourselves to get to the point of having to watch Damian de Allende potter around a rugby field while making millions?

Let me qualify somewhat – if you have ever, like me, gone to watch a schoolboy or club rugby match then, yes, I do think you have done something, however miniscule, to encourage our rugby down the path of insipidness.

Let’s backtrack a bit though.

People often say that in a country that has the strongest schoolboy rugby, the most players, professional and amateur, and a near religious devotion to the game, only the administrators, politicians and the national coach can possible be blamed when the Springboks descend into new depths of horrifyingly bad ‘professional’ rugby.

They are dead wrong.

It’s nice to have a convenient scapegoat to make ourselves feel some “gees” with our fellow fans, and, yes, our politicians, adminstrators and coaches are generally fairly awful, but under these same leaders, we have, up to the last five years, been able to put together some brilliant teams.

The coaches didn’t suddenly get worse. Nor did the politicians suddenly become more corrupt. Nor did quotas suddenly become an issue now (there is no skin colour correlation when you assess poor Bok performances). A lot of Allister Coetzee haters forget that the Boks lost to Japan (Japan!) under Heyneke Meyer.

But in amongst our general national chaos, the Boks have always managed to produce some rugby greatness.

In 2009, P Divvy coached a team that scored regular first-phase tries against the British Lions and our Sanzar compadres.

In 2004, Jake White’s Boks scored tries aplenty in beating or narrowly losing to the All Blacks – en route to winning the Tri-Nations (mere months after Kamp Staaldraad!).

But something’s different now.

You can see the malaise in front of you. The rudderless performances. The sheer average-ness of so many of our Boks. The old empire is crumbling. People hardly watched the Currie Cup or Super Rugby.

So what happened?

As I have written above – the coaches didn’t suddenly get bad. Nor did the administrators suddenly get worse.

No – the very things we think are our rugby strengths have turned against us and are rotting away our rugby greatness from the inside.

Our strong schoolboy rugby; the number of professional players; and our religious fanatacism have slowly eroded any sense of adventure to our game.

Let me give you an example:

How many times have you watched a lower level rugby game where the players ran the ball from within their 22? How many times have you seen young players attempt an outrageous offload? Or a cross-kick? Or a little dink over the rush defence?

Or put it into the negative form…

How many times have you watched young teams play according to a rigid pattern of pre-set phase moves? How many times have you watched coaches screaming at players when they make a mistake?

Watch some schoolboy rugby on TV. Even better, go and watch the Heyneke Meyer-organised World Cup of Schoolboy Rugby in the Cape next year. Our schoolboy rugby is really not that good. It’s a spectacle; but not a rugby spectacle.

And why is this the case? Quite simply, because you are there watching. And not just watching, but feeling like the world might end if your team loses. And so coaches coach for short-term gain because that is how they are being measured – because even in schools that is what they are being hired to do.

Hopefully my central idea is getting clearer.

Brazil is not the best at soccer because they have highly organised coaching clinics in their inner cities. Central contracting at the professional level is not the reason why the All Blacks are one of the best sports teams of all time in any code.

And the reason why South African rugby is falling apart is not because of our messed up national situation.

The reason is far simpler… Our rugby players are not that good.

At the moment we have two centres who don’t seem to know when is the right time to pass or the right line to run. That sums it up for me. Even worse, would the best centre in the world, Ryan Crotty (who hasn’t lost a match for the Crusaders or the All Blacks in over a year), have even made it here? Would Conrad Smith? These are players without a lot of flash, but a lot of nous, and thus became superstars. Meanwhile our players have no feel for the game.

Because feel for the game is not what is taught in the rucking drills and shadow rugby of the schoolboy training pitch. Because feel for the game won’t always win you the game at lower levels where organisation and size are enough.

But organization and size are not enough at senior level.

Recently Ian McGeechan – the legendary Lions and Scottish coach – warned coaches not to attempt to copy the All Blacks pattern. Why? Because he said they have no pattern. Instead they have varying basic plans into which the collective can slip into almost instinctively when the situation calls for it. Why? Because they grew up playing rugby football together. Watch how they score their tries – mostly from a freakish sense of cohesion and skill in moments of broken play.

The good news is that this problem is eminently fixable. Like many things in life, the solution requires simply having the courage to do less. Let kids play. That’s how they learn. They managed to learn to walk and speak by playing around with no training drills. So let them do the same with sport. Let them play.

Play touch in schoolboy practise sessions to warm up. Then let them play contact. Then let them play matches – and encourage them to win and lose with gusto. And press repeat.

I might be wrong. Maybe even a love and feel for the game won’t be enough to overcome all our other problems. Yes, that’s distinctly possible.

But at the very least, we’ll be re-introducing some kind of fun into a game that is buckling under the weight of its own overdrawn sense of seriousness.