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.