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Ken Borland



The John McFarland Column: Planning for the French Tests 0

Posted on May 23, 2017 by Ken

 

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee will not find it too difficult to prepare for the three Tests against France and there is always great excitement when the players get together in the national team environment.

Due to WorldRugby regulations, he will have to wait for the overseas players until the week of the first Test match, but these days the information they need to know is easy to disseminate and the players have access to apps, for example, with which they can watch the training sessions. He will have communicated the game plans, moves and patterns to them, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for them to assimilate.

This week saw Allister have his third camp this year, which is obviously what he missed last year. His program of camps has been very much extended this year, but you still don’t do a lot of hard, physical work at these get-togethers.

As Springbok management, you have to be very careful because the players are in the middle of SuperRugby and will be coming off a very tough game. But the camps are certainly invaluable for laying down the plans for the structure and principles, making sure all the players get on the same page.

There will be on-field training, but basically it will just be walk-throughs or practising with the contact levels right down. We used to use the Lions U19 players as defenders, which puts much less pressure on the Springboks in terms of physicality.

After all, some unions used to send their players to camp with GPSs so they could check the amount of running they did!

Generally the three Tests in June are against the same opposition, so it’s easier to prepare for it, but it’s the same for every international team, they are all in the same boat.

In November, the Southern Hemisphere teams have an advantage because it’s after the end of their season, all their game plans are in place and they’ve just come off a month’s rest. In June, the Northern Hemisphere sides are tired at the end of their long season, but due to the Six Nations, they are further along in their game plans.

The key for Allister will be to not make it too complicated, stick to simple principles and make it clear what he wants the team to do to win that first Test.

I know international football sides only get their players for a week from all over the world, but soccer is quite an individual game, there are a lot more dynamics in rugby such as the set-pieces and the defensive and attacking game plans.

As far as last weekend’s SuperRugby goes, the Stormers did really well to come back from their overseas tour woes with a win. They defended very well in the final quarter and from half-time onwards they were very sound and physical in the collisions. They got their just rewards for quick-taps with some game-changing moments.

I was quite sceptical, however, about the TMO decision on Sikhumbuzo Notshe’s try, but there are always highs and lows in terms of officiating through a Super Rugby season and it evens out in the end.

The Southern Kings were a bit unlucky against the Brumbies, but they were very vulnerable to the grubber in behind. Their defensive system relies on the fullback getting up in the line very early, the Brumbies obviously saw that and took advantage.

In the game in Singapore, the 38-17 scoreline flattered the Sharks a bit because they had an intercept and two breakaway tries in the last few minutes against the Sunwolves. Before that, the Sharks just could not finish and the amount of mistakes they made, especially when it came to the final pass, didn’t help either. But they will be happy to get back to winning ways and get the bonus point, although it looks likely they’ll have to get through a playoff in New Zealand.

If the Lions, however, have aspirations of playing at home all the way through to the final, then they need to win their big game against the Sharks after the international break.

No side in SuperRugby would have lived with the Lions in the first half of their match against the Bulls and they are showing great decision-making at the moment.

Having been away for three weeks, there was definitely a feeling of the Lions being back at home and they were full of confidence.

Obviously they will lose a bit of momentum over the break, quite a few of their players will be in the national squads, so it will be a tough month for them. They will have guys who will play all three Tests against France, so that will be disruptive to their rhythm.

And coach Johan Ackermann won’t have a break either because he will be coaching the SA A side, which will be quite taxing too. And then one week after the end of SuperRugby, he’ll be off to Gloucester, so he has a very busy program over the next few months.

Sometimes you get very good SuperRugby players who are just not able to adapt to the higher environment and believe you me, international rugby is a higher level and just so much quicker, because it’s the best of the best playing. In SuperRugby, you get guys who are in the same system all their life, at the Bulls there were guys who were coached in defence by me since they were 19, but they can’t adapt to the different pace of the game at the next step up.

Certain other players prove to be consistently excellent players at Test level. There’s such a mental side to it because there is real pressure representing your country at international level, some players just cope better.

Those are the sort of players Allister Coetzee will want to be working with.

 

 

John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.

 

I know a week is a long time in sport, but … 0

Posted on March 20, 2017 by Ken

 

I’ve always known that a week can be a long time in the world of sport, but I go away for eight nights to the bush of northern Limpopo and return to find rugby’s entire landscape changing with indecent haste compared to the months of feet-dragging that often characterise a game that has been presided over at some stages by dinosaurs or the old farts of the straw-chair brigade.

One of the changes I saw coming before my departure. I always love unintended consequences and it was former Springboks and Bulls defence coach John McFarland who pointed out to me that the rulemakers’ new emphasis on keeping tackles lower, away from the head and shoulders, was at least partly responsible for the sudden rash of offloads we have seen from the South African teams, who have traditionally preferred taking contact and winning some hard-earned, psychologically-meaningful centimetres.

So it’s not just a mindset change amongst our franchise coaches and players, but also that tacklers are now being forced down below the arms, allowing the hands to be free to keep the ball alive.

Time will tell whether that more skilful approach is carried through to the Springboks, but the national team has already had better preparation than last year with a camp and they look better resourced too in terms of coaching staff.

One of those additional resources is Cheetahs coach Franco Smith and it may be just as well that he has earned a promotion because he might be out of a decent Super Rugby job next year. If we believe what the New Zealand media tell us, then the Cheetahs as well as the Southern Kings will be axed from Super Rugby under the new, hopefully improved format for 2018 that is yet to be unveiled.

Harold Verster, the CEO of the Cheetahs, cheerfully told the world though that he keeps his “ear to the ground” and that the rumbling noise he hears is not a rampaging stampede of buffalo at all, but the sound of the Grey College-Free State-somewhere else in the country pipeline running smoothly. He says the Cheetahs are safe.

You cannot be nearly as optimistic about the Kings, however. They would seem to be sitting ducks as not only are they struggling on the field but they are a financial drain on the South African Rugby Union and money always shouts loudest when it comes to administrators, like politicians.

Speaking of politicians, you cannot escape the irony that Cheeky Watson, the self-proclaimed messiah of transformation, has now left Eastern Cape rugby and has done more damage to the nursery of Black rugby in our country than anything since a Nationalist government functionary.

If you called him a blood-sucking tick you would probably be understating his effect. The man has been a full-blown parasite on the game in that vulnerable region, more like the deadly malaria protozoans that kill half-a-million people a year in sub-Saharan Africa.

Later this year, the British and Irish Lions tour New Zealand in what should be the rugby highlight of 2017, but this type of proper tour probably won’t become more common given the news this week that a new global rugby calendar is being introduced. Coming into effect in 2020, it has reducing player workload as one of its main tenets.

Tours by northern hemisphere teams to the southern hemisphere will be pushed back to July, but this will allow Super Rugby to be completed in one fell swoop from February to June. This is a good thing and will come into effect in 2019, because that is a World Cup year.

The 2023 World Cup is another story of course, with South Africa seemingly ranged against France and Ireland for the right to host the tournament. If you can believe what came out of sports minister Fikile Mbalula’s mouth this week, then government is now backing the bid.

Then again, Mbalula might just have been trying to distract from the fiasco that was Durban’s Commonwealth Games bid. The chairman of that bid was Mark Alexander, the president of the South African Rugby Union, but that’s a story for another day.

Sanzar’s SuperRugby Christmas present is likely to be meh 0

Posted on February 20, 2017 by Ken

 

Rugby fans who have had enough of the current fatigue-inducing set-up will be eagerly anticipating Christmas and the expected announcement by Sanzar of a new SuperRugby format from 2016. But what they find in their stocking might still leave them unimpressed because Sanzar are unlikely to go the most obvious route of two pools of nine, eight matches home and away and semi-finals and a final.

Because the Southern Kings had such a dramatic impact on rugby in the Eastern Cape, certainly in terms of crowd figures, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) seem to have accepted that they can no longer leave such a massive region out in the cold even though they lost the promotion/relegation series to the Lions. And Argentina, full Sanzar partners now, look set to be rewarded with a place in SuperRugby as well, expanding the competition to 17 teams. Judging by the noises coming out of New Zealand and Australia, some sort of Japanese involvement is also being strongly considered to make it an even 18.

But the same Australian demands that impacted so heavily on the previous broadcasting agreement, which brings in all the money and therefore decides the format, seem set to ensure common sense does not apply. In order to sustain the ailing code of rugby union in Australia, they want their own conference, even if they have to share it with some New Zealand teams.

So the three proposals that Sanzar are considering are to keep the status quo (yes, many stakeholders, most of them living on a big island, actually think the current format is great), to split into South African and Australasian conferences, or to expand the competition even more and include other Asian teams, and the USA and Canada as well.

It would appear the two-conference system has been most positively received by Saru, and hopefully their negotiators will show much more skill when Sanzar meet in Sydney next week than the muppets who negotiated the previous deal. That could mean six South African franchises, which play each other home and away, making 10 fixtures. If the Australasian conference is split into two pools, with Japan in one and Argentina in the other, then they, too, could play 10 round-robin matches. The idea is then for the top six or eight teams across the conferences to play in the finals. If six teams go through and play each other, that’s five more matches. A semi-final and a final would then mean a maximum of 17 games per team – much cleaner, much simpler and less of a slog than SuperRugby is at the moment for all concerned.

What is vital is that Sanzar consult the players, on whom they rely to sell their product. There is a strong suggestion that the current exodus of players from the southern hemisphere to Europe is not just because of the power of the euro, but also because they are on their last legs due to the unceasing intensity and quantity of rugby Sanzar has foisted on them.

Bulls captain Pierre Spies, one of many on the injured list after the prolonged SuperRugby campaign, is pegging his hopes on change. “I’d really like to see the competition end before the international season. That three-week break for the internationals in June is a waste. I’d like to see all the focus on SuperRugby, get that done with and then give all the teams three or four weeks to prepare for the Tests. We could then finish the Rugby Championship at the end of October and either go back to our franchises or prepare for the end-of-year tour. I’d prefer there to be one global schedule and to finish SuperRugby in one go. That would also give all the teams one extra bye,” Spies told Daily Maverick on Thursday.

There does seem to be growing agreement on the sense of having one global rugby season. The International Rugby Players’ Association has come out in favour of it and even Sanzar CEO Greg Peters has said it makes sense. “The idea of moving June to July, in a Sanzar context, certainly holds a lot of appeal, for a lot of reasons,” Peters told The Herald Sun. “We could complete the SuperRugby season without a break, which is something in an ideal world we would want to do. Then you would move straight into the international program, have a short break, the Rugby Championship, short break, and then the Spring Tours. We would certainly be interested in sitting down with the northern unions and getting their views about whether it would work. And obviously we are interested in the views of the players’ associations as well.”

The Currie Cup Premier Division also looks set to change, with a new eight team format apparently agreed to in principle by the Saru executive committee, just two years after they went to great lengths to justify a cut to six teams. The phrase “political expediency” immediately springs to mind, but the thought of the Kings and the Pumas, who have dominated the First Division in recent times and are based in the rapidly-growing centre of Nelspruit, competing at the top table does have appeal.

The administrators sit in the boardrooms and make the decisions over lavish lunches, changing tune according to their own vested interests, but it is the players who have to go out, put their bodies on the line, and make these formats work.

“I’ve only been playing SuperRugby for six years and I’m struggling to get on the field now,” says Springbok star Francois Steyn, who has been out of action since May after two operations for compartment syndrome in the leg – an over-use injury.

“In South African rugby, we all worry about saying something wrong and stepping on someone’s toes, so I should probably keep my mouth shut. But it’s all about bringing the fans out and less rugby is probably better. Then the top players can play for longer. At this rate, if you play for 10 years, you’re a lucky guy.”

https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-08-30-quo-vadis-superrugby/#.WKrl_2997IU

Former Springbok defence coach John McFarland on the Brisbane disappointment 0

Posted on September 13, 2016 by Ken

 

I must say I find it quite disturbing sitting here in Japan and reading about the Springboks being in chaos … and that’s coming from a lot of people who have never coached a game of rugby in their lives!

I thought the Springboks gave it a full go in Brisbane against the Wallabies and there was far more intensity than there was in Argentina. People must remember that we lost by only six points, it was not a 49-0 result after all!

The Springboks were right in it until the last minute, so it was a similar story to the last few years when it comes to matches against the Wallabies – the Springboks built a lead and then Australia clawed it back.

I thought the Springboks finished strongly, but there were too many mistakes in the attacking red zone: too many knock-ons, fumbles and the carriers would lose the ball on their way down to the ground just when we had built up some momentum.

To those who are suggesting the team is not being coached, this is plainly unfair. I know Allister Coezee and Johann van Graan well and from working with Johann  for four years I know they would have looked at Australia in detail.

Game planning is now a collaborative exercise between the players and coaches. As attack coach, Johann would meet with the senior players and the key decision-makers, show them clips which he felt were relevant and then they would agree on the way forward after bouncing ideas around. Johann meets with small groups like the breakdown, attack leaders and lineout groups and the different units within the team to discuss with them what they need to do. To say there is no planning in place and chaos in the team is far from the truth.

So it’s always clear what the plan is for the forwards competing and the attack or the kicking game or whatever, and certainly for the defence when I was there. The plan is always clear on attack and defence, but clearly you then have to execute. I don’t know how Mzwandile Stick and Chean Roux work, but I imagine it would be the same.

And then there’s a 45-minute meeting with all the players and leadership group where feedback is given on different areas, so the game plan is always clear to everyone who is involved.

So the game plan will be a collaboration and it’s always a very busy week for the players and coaches because not only do they have all their on-field training, but they also do a helluva lot of video work and planning.

An international coach only has 12 games per year, but it’s like playing 12 finals because for every game he has to prepare like he would for a final.

I think there certainly was an improvement by the Springboks in Brisbane. The defence was better but there were still far too many cardinal errors.

They should have set the blindside defence from the breakdown better after the lineout maul and you could see from Bryan Habana’s reaction that he got sucked in because we clearly didn’t have enough numbers there on the blindside.

On the second try, the defenders overtracked on Foley. You should be coming forward and be square that close to the line, otherwise you will be stepped.

But the defence did set much better and it was more organised, but that was predicted because Juan de Jongh and Jesse Kriel are better communicators and more vocal.

It was also really obvious though that the Springboks should have been kicking more on to Quade Cooper when he was on the wing. It’s hard to do it from the left side because Elton Jantjies is a left-footer, but it would have been easy for him to swap around with Johan Goosen.

They should have managed that better, they were just set up all the time for the maul and box-kick. It was also disappointing that they then allowed Australia to play from there, they should not really be able to attack from there because the chase should be much wider and into position quicker. The Wallabies have had to run back to get behind the catcher, so it’s really just a question of work-rate when it comes to the Springbok chase.

You generally have a plan beforehand, but Test rugby is so high-paced and frantic that it’s very difficult to change things during the game. You have to have clear plans before the game and you have to have practised it if you’re going to make a change. By putting Johan Goosen at flyhalf on the left-hand side they would have opened up the middle of the field and allowed the Springboks to kick away from Israel Folau. If you kick long and then they kick it back, you must reply with a short running bomb, which is always fielded by scrumhalf Will Genia, and surely we can win aerial battles with him!

The Springboks are also generally not generating broken-field ball with their kicks, which is strange because we do have right-footed and left-footed combinations.

The Lions have won in New Zealand this year, so I hope the things that served them well will come in. I think it could be quite close against the All Blacks in Christchurch, I don’t think the Springboks are going to get beaten by 40 or 50 points.

In the last four years our away games against the All Blacks have been relatively close. In Dunedin in 2012, the Springboks missed a lot of penalties – we only kicked at 33% – and lost 21-11, while 2013 in Auckland was when referee Roman Poite reduced us to 14 men for most of the game when he yellow-carded and then red-carded Bismarck du Plessis, which was subsequently proven to be unfair. Then in 2014 in Wellington they won 14-10 thanks to Kieran Read batting back a crosskick to Richie McCaw to score, and that game became very close at the end. Last year the Springboks lost 20-18 in London in the World Cup semifinal.

It’s essentially a very similar group playing again this weekend and it’s always the biggest clash of the year for both teams, the Boks certainly approach it like that and, as All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster has alluded to this week, they view the Springboks as their greatest competitors and rivals so I fully expect it to be a much closer game than some of our fortune-tellers in the media have predicted.

I know this group of players will always stand up and be counted and it’s always the same with the Springboks: when you back them into a hole they perform at their best, they need that extreme pressure, under that their real character is shown and this group does have character.

John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012-15, having won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.

 

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