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Ken Borland



The John McFarland Column: Coaching changes aplenty as SuperRugby returns 0

Posted on February 15, 2018 by Ken

 

It is really exciting to have rugby starting again in the Southern Hemisphere this weekend and what I’m really looking forward to is having a traditional South African Saturday afternoon braai here while watching the rugby, something I won’t be getting in freezing Japan when I return there.

SuperRugby is a ‘new’ competition this year with 18 teams having been cut to 15, supposedly to ensure more closer contests and greater competitiveness. But I do have my reservations because SuperRugby must be the only competition in the world where over 50% of the competing teams make the playoffs, apart from the Currie Cup of course!

Despite eight teams making it through to the quarterfinals, there are clearly only a few places up for grabs, and you can pretty much see already the teams that aren’t going to make it – the Melbourne Rebels, Queensland Reds, Sunwolves, Jaguares and one New Zealand side.

I would say the Kiwi team to miss out will probably be the Chiefs because they are under new management and have lost some massive names – Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Liam Messam, Michael Leitch and most importantly coach Dave Rennie.

And then there will be two South African sides that miss out. I’m pessimistic about our chances because of our SuperRugby record in New Zealand over the last six years, which is nothing to brag about. We can beat New Zealand teams in South Africa, but it is a whole different kettle of fish doing it away from home – and those are the points you have to get in order to succeed in SuperRugby.

The other thing about the rule that eight out of 15 teams qualify for the knockout rounds is that it makes bonus points very necessary for teams to pick up, so it has been pleasing to see the stated attacking intent of our franchises. But because you only get a bonus point by finishing three clear tries ahead of your opponents, that means teams have to defend as well.

In terms of the South African teams, there have been many changes in coaching set-up.

The Bulls have a fresh coaching team and I know they have been working hard and it will be interesting to see how they go. Having been to training at Loftus Versfeld, they certainly look in good shape, for which you have to credit the conditioning staff and John Mitchell.

The Bulls do have certain strengths, especially at hooker and their lock pairings, and the spine of their team is quite strong – hooker, the locks, eighthman, scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback all look good. I suppose we can be not entirely sure about scrumhalf because Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier have got just two SuperRugby appearances between them. How those two cope with the step up to SuperRugby will be crucial; they are both certainly talented and this is now their chance and their time. These days scrumhalf is a young man’s position because it’s all about energy and work-rate.

The Bulls have a very tough start to the competition and how they get through that will be key. They play three New Zealand teams and the Lions in their first five games and if they can come through that with a positive ledger then they will really be contenders.

The Stormers have obviously lost a lot of quality centres and the injuries around their locks is also a concern. It’s interesting to see the changing roles of their coaching staff  and how that works out.

The Stormers were certainly a real handful in Cape Town last year with their offloading game and the way they scored tries. They will now have even more danger on the wings with the players they’ve added, but the big question mark will be how they defend away from home.

They obviously have problems at flyhalf after losing their lynchpin from last year in Robert du Preez, who really made a difference in the Currie Cup final with his control and ability to dictate field position, as well as his immaculate goal-kicking.

Unfortunately the Stormers have a real draw from hell after being in relatively easy Super 18 pools, but if they get a good start then they obviously can be playoff contenders.

The Sharks have also made changes to their coaching set-up. Dick Muir has come back to Durban and they are obviously not going to die wondering in terms of attack.

They have also made some astute signings like Du Preez and Makazole Mapimpi, and with Japanese players like Philip van der Walt and Andre Esterhuizen coming back, they should certainly be a handful. It’s also going to be interesting to watch Thomas du Toit’s move to tighthead after the Sharks scrum was demolished by Western Province in the Currie Cup final.

The Sharks do have a quality, big forward pack and if they keep them all fit and start well (they have a couple of nice games at home early on), that should bear them in good stead.

The Lions have also undergone a change in coaching staff, making appointments from within the franchise and giving guys their first chance at SuperRugby level, although Swys de Bruin has been there through all their recent success. It will be interesting to see how he steps up to being head coach and how well the Lions ride the loss of the Ackermanns, father and son.

The Lions’ strength is in their centres, with Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster and Rohan Janse van Rensburg certainly a quality trio. How the Lions accommodate all three of them through the season will be interesting.

The key for the Lions is that the spine of their team are now all seasoned Test players – Andries Coetzee, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley and Malcolm Marx – so their core is still very strong.

It’s vital that they make a good start and they have always had strong set-pieces, so it will also be interesting to see how that evolves under new forwards coach Phillip Lemmer because the Lions have always scored a lot of tries through driving mauls and lineout special plays. Will that strength still be there?

The Sunwolves will be in action next week and they will certainly be stronger this year, they have a whole host of foreign players and the rest are basically the Japan national squad working towards the next World Cup. They are also under the former Highlanders pairing of Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, who are very experienced SuperRugby coaches.

Once again the Kiwi franchises are the ones to beat, but obviously the British Lions’ success in New Zealand in June gave a little blueprint to teams in terms of how to succeed over there. You need a strong pack of forwards, good set-pieces to put them under pressure, a rush-defence to deny their playmakers time on the ball and extremely accurate box-kicking from scrumhalf because that is the hardest kick to counter-attack from because of the chase.

 

 

 

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.

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Chapter & verse from Coetzee, and then what? 0

Posted on December 10, 2017 by Ken

 

In the next week, national coach Allister Coetzee will have to give chapter and verse on what happened to the Springboks this year to the SA Rugby executive council and if he stays true to his public pronouncements after the loss to Wales, then he will describe his charges as “a side that is on the up” and having “a really healthy team environment”.

Which is nothing but a sop for a South African public that rightly expects top-class performances from their national rugby team. Instead, the Springboks have endured a decidedly mediocre year, without a single rousing victory for Coetzee to rave about at his performance review. Victories over France, Argentina and Italy are not results we would expect the Springboks to boast about, and neither were two draws against a very average Australian side.

The results have been disappointing enough but to add insult to injury, the Springboks are playing such uninspired rugby that it feels like we are back to the most conservative days early on in Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as national coach.

Simply put, the Springboks are not making any progress under Coetzee. In fact, we have seen two more unwanted milestones set this year in record defeats to New Zealand and Ireland.

To put an end to this continued slide into mediocrity, SA Rugby simply have to hold Coetzee accountable and relieve him of his duties as Springbok coach. I had sympathy for him this time last year because he was coaching with one hand tied behind his back, perhaps even being set up to fail, but this year he has been given everything he wanted and even said at the start of the campaign that there were no excuses this year.

In the general public, Rassie Erasmus, freshly back in the post of director of rugby, is seen as the obvious candidate to replace Coetzee and try and rescue South Africa’s hopes for the 2019 World Cup.

But Erasmus has shown little desire to emerge from the shadows, from which he has been strategising, and there seems little doubt that the rumours that Deon Davids of the Southern Kings will be the new Springbok coach have emanated from his office via his usual journalistic channels.

Davids has done wonders with the Kings considering the lack of resources, both in terms of players and finance, and time he has had to deal with, and is highly-rated as a coach. But other players and coaches tell me he would be out of his depth at international level.

I do have a fundamental problem, though, if Davids is appointed to merely be the face of the Springboks with Erasmus making all the big decisions.

The Springbok coach needs to be accountable to the fans and he needs to be regularly available to the media to explain his decisions; something Coetzee and those before him have never shirked. Erasmus cannot be allowed to be pulling the strings and not seen to be answerable for the national team’s performance.

As Springbok coach, Coetzee has made some stupid selections (such as neutralising Eben Etzebeth as an enforcer by making him captain) and has rightly been called to task for them; Erasmus cannot be allowed to operate as a dictatorial figure whose instructions are not open to scrutiny.

The time has come for change, but as in Zimbabwean politics, there are concerns that the change won’t necessarily be for the better. The smooth-talking Erasmus has been able to con a lot of people in recent years, but perhaps now is the time for him to display his rugby acumen in the frontline, under the glare of the television cameras and the beady eye of the fourth estate.

 

The John McFarland Column: A special win for the Springboks 0

Posted on June 13, 2017 by Ken

 

It was really a quite special win for the Springboks over France at Loftus Versfeld last weekend, against a side that definitely turned up, were hard to break down and were the best French side available on that Saturday.

The match was brutal on the gain-line, there were double-hits, they smashed the Springboks and the Springboks smashed them, so it was a great Test for the home side to come through, especially with five debutants in the 23-man squad. It’s a great start to their 2017 season.

The match was in the balance at 16-14 and then came the penalty try. Given how quickly the officials made up their minds, it must have been a clearcut decision.

The Springbok attack was definitely based around getting to the middle of the field and there were a lot of tip-on passes from the forward pods, which creates indecision in the defence, one-on-one tackles and lightning-quick ball. It’s quite an effective tactic against a rush defence.

From middle rucks, sometimes the outside back-row forward would come hard off the scrumhalf, who would either play him or go behind his back to Elton Jantjies, which makes the defence sit a bit and creates space.

There was a lot of quality passing from the Springboks, which was not in evidence last year, and there was definitely more attacking understanding and ball-in-hand play.

It was great that Jantjies looked so composed, and he and Ross Cronje, who gave very slick service and was a threat around the edges, directed play well; they always had a couple of options and it created indecision in the French defence. Because Elton is the only specialist flyhalf in the squad, he’s not looking over his shoulder and he feels he has Allister Coetzee’s total backing, he can run the show. It’s the sort of thing a key decision-maker wants.

Andries Coetzee, in his first Test, showed real pace, especially in the outside channels, he showed one or two lovely touches and was willing to run the ball back from deep, he really had a go.

The ball-carries of Malcolm Marx were exceptional and the Springboks made a lot of blindside probes, guys like Marx running a hard line close to the ruck, and he bounced off defenders at will, also creating more space. When was the last time we saw such a physically dominant performance by a South African hooker?

The scrum was very compact, it looked in good shape and form and was used as a good platform. The Springboks had two very experienced props, plus with their locks and loose forwards, there was no shortage of beef behind them.

The lineout also functioned really well, Eben Etzebeth was really good, and the Springboks won most of their pressure throws. There were not many easy balls at number two in the lineout, and it’s very difficult to attack from the front of the lineout. So they were very adventurous with their lineout tactics and Marx’s throwing was spot-on.

It was also a superbly-executed try off a throw to the back, a move which was very difficult to defend against. It’s very special to score those sort of tries at Test level, so credit to the coaches, it takes some doing.

In terms of the kicking game, South Africa cleared their lines very well and were never under pressure from kickoffs, it was just one hit up and then back to Jantjies, who kicked it to halfway. In the middle areas of the field, they would drive to suck in forwards and then Cronje would kick, and there was excellent execution of that too.

It was also a very much improved defensive display from the Springboks, credit to Brendan Venter for the best defensive performance by a South African team this year. There was brutality on the gain-line, great field-coverage and, at the end of the game, their willingness to put their bodies on the line and keep the French out was tremendous.

The defence looked organised and in the French faces for the whole game, and it will only get better as the players settle into the system. What was most impressive was how disciplined they were, so France only had one penalty shot at goal.

A small area of improvement that is needed was that they became a little compressed from wide rucks and were caught a little short on numbers in the outside channels. They came off the line quite hard and if France were able to get the ball behind their first line of attackers then they did find space.

The Springboks also closed very early at fullback, Coetzee came very early into the line, which means you then rely a lot on the scrumhalf for cover. Everyone does it these days, but sometimes perhaps the fullback should not be so quick to come up.

But it was a good start for the first Test and you can see the team is much more bonded, the leadership has set the right tone. Warren Whiteley is so selfless and empathetic, as alluded to in this column when he got the Springbok captain’s job, so he is in tune with his team.

France will obviously be a different animal in Durban, especially because they have just been physically dominated. But the whole Springbok side worked so hard, to keep a Test side pointless in the last 25 minutes at altitude is an amazing effort and it speaks to South Africa having a really strong bench.

It was a really positive start and we hope for more over the next two weeks.

And good luck too to the South African U20s for their Junior World Cup semi-final. It’s going to be a really big challenge against the England U20s, but I hope they can come through.

 

John McFarland Column – The intent is obviously there 0

Posted on March 03, 2017 by Ken

 

Judging by the quality of the games last weekend, I am really looking forward to this weekend’s SuperRugby action, with the Stormers, Bulls and Lions looking like South Africa’s three major contenders.

Last weekend we saw very different South African derbies to what we normally see and the will to attack was clearly there. The intent was obviously there to play with ball in hand and the teams played with real speed in terms of tempo, and pace, which made a heck of an impact.

An example of this was when the Stormers took a quick tap and scored seven points against the Bulls; they, in particular, showed more intent than they have in the past.

The effects of the new tackle law, meaning players now have to go lower with their hits, were also evident in that there were more offloads. Attacks can now continue through the tackle because the arms are free and the tall guys can get the ball above the tackle. It keeps the ball alive and it has led to a lot more continuity.

What was really impressive to me was how lean some of the leading Springboks looked. Guys like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi looked in great shape and the speed they played at was a direct consequence of their fitness levels.

There’s definitely been a huge emphasis on conditioning through the franchises and it could mean the end of the New Zealand and Australian sides feeling that a high ball-in-play figure is their secret to success because the South African teams will tire.

While the Stormers were fantastic, what was encouraging about the Bulls was that they never gave up, which is huge. They denied the Stormers a bonus point, which at the end of the day could be vital; from 24-0 up at halftime, the Stormers really needed to get that bonus point. The second half would have provided a huge swing in confidence for the Bulls.

In the Cheetahs versus Lions game in Bloemfontein, the visitors really got out of jail, but if you can score three tries away from home then you deserve your victory.

Rohan Janse van Rensburg showed his finishing power and speed, while the Lions’ try down the short side to win the match showed again that rugby is about defending the full width of the field, even if you only have two or three metres to touch.

The penalty try given off a driving maul was a game-changer; most referees would have copped out and just given a penalty, but if the maul is set and moving forward then it deserves that decision, so credit to referee Quinton Immelman for his brave call.

The Southern Kings looked better and scored some really good tries, but again conceded turnovers at crucial times. During the first half they were in control for long periods, but a yellow card really cost them and prop Ross Geldenhuys was lucky not to get a red card, which a knee to the back should be penalised with.

The major talking point of the last week in the rugby world, however, was Italy and their decision not to contest rucks against England.

I had lunch with Brendan Venter last week and he mentioned that they were going to do it. Any tactic that is new and innovative has to be applauded and it certainly took England a long time to cope with it, so credit to Brendan and the rest of the Italian coaching staff and players for that.

But I believe World Rugby do need to look at the law. As defence coaches, we encourage players to get back on their feet and in the defensive line, but now teams might just try to herd the attacking team into a small radius of the ruck, which would not be good for the game.

It would take a full week of coaching to get a game plan against Italy’s tactic. It was  a real shock-and-awe strategy and difficult to adapt to on your feet. In fact, England played into Italy’s hands with their counter to it, so it clearly worked as a tactic.

 

 

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.



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