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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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Rugby not expediting much joy for me 0

Posted on December 05, 2017 by Ken

 

I must confess to a certain sense of relief today as our rugby season (the 15-man game anyway) comes to an end this weekend with the misfiring Springboks facing a daunting assignment in Cardiff. Sad to say, but I find myself more and more irritated by rugby these days.

The uninspiring fare dished up by the Springboks, made worse by the tantalising glimpse they gave of what they are capable of in the Newlands Test against the All Blacks, brings little joy and the two domestic sides I cover, the Bulls and Sharks, have had more heartache than cheer this year. Even the Lions’ loss in the Super Rugby final still hurts.

Nevertheless, just to get two last parting shots in before Christmas, rugby made me angry twice more this week.

It’s annoying that Springbok coach Allister Coetzee is not expediting the smooth introduction of the tremendously talented Warrick Gelant into international rugby. Instead of playing him in his natural position of fullback, where change is surely required because the solid Andries Coetzee has done little to suggest star-quality, coach Coetzee has plonked Gelant on the wing for his first start.

The selection of players out of position has become something of a Springbok curse in recent years, but the disappointing treatment of Gelant might also be due to the lack of options Coetzee has on the wing. As at fullback, we can all see change is necessary, but the only other specialist wing in the squad is Raymond Rhule, and would he really improve things?

A rugby sage once told me that Springbok coaches stand or fall by selection and, judging by the number of times Coetzee has replaced an injured player with someone who plays in a different position, the current national coach is obviously failing in this regard. Just on this tour, we’ve had an eighthman, Duane Vermeulen, replacing a prop, Coenie Oosthuizen, and lock Ruan Botha came in for flank Jean-Luc du Preez, which clearly shows he got the initial selections wrong.

But the failure of WorldRugby to honour their own processes and award the 2023 World Cup to South Africa was the low point of the year; at least South Africa’s 57-0 thrashing in Albany came with plenty of wonderful rugby from the All Blacks to admire.

The duplicity and lack of integrity shown by their council members makes the blood boil, and the reputation of rugby took a major hit in London a fortnight ago.

So it was with utter shock that I observed the sheer nerve of WorldRugby this week trying to clamp down on players writing messages on their strapping. The rationale was that WorldRugby had no control over what messaging was displayed and with the pettiness typical of the jobsworths who have more regard for their own positions and privilege than the good of the game, the decision was made to clamp down.

Perhaps WorldRugby should worry more about the game being brought into disrepute by their own administrators; the message sent by the 2023 World Cup decision was far worse than anything a player could fit on to his strapping.

Sport did bring me some happiness this week though. It was wonderful to see a cricketing legend of yesteryear, Mike Procter, team up with one of the country’s most talented young writers, Lungani Zama, to launch an updated autobiography.

Procter, of course, played in an era when someone like Zama, who is a good enough cricketer to have played for the KZN Inland side before they gained first-class status, was not allowed to fully express their talents.

Procter, one of the all-time greats of South African cricket and a former national coach and selector, understands these issues and it is wonderful to see him so actively involved in cricket development through his coaching work at the Ottawa Primary School outside Durban, introducing the game to nearly a thousand underprivileged children.

A cricketer capable of taking the new ball and bowling at 145km/h, with prodigious swing, and a good enough batsman to score 254 against Western Province in a Currie Cup game, Procter was obviously a rare talent and one that the current lovers of the game really need to know more about.

He is certainly one of the contenders for the title of greatest all-rounder the game has known and the story of his playing days is augmented with fascinating accounts of his stint as an ICC match referee, having to deal with the major controversies of Darrell Hair abandoning an England v Pakistan Test match, the Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds ‘Monkeygate’ saga, and the bomb blast that ended international cricket in Pakistan.

As Caught in the Middle details, Procter is one of the heroes of the game still adding value in the present day.

 

The John McFarland Column: Looking back at the fantastic Newlands Test 0

Posted on October 13, 2017 by Ken

 

What a fantastic game of rugby it was at Newlands, with the incredible atmosphere, the pace, intensity and physicality making it real Test match rugby.

Unfortunately the Springboks lost, but they gave a huge performance and the All Blacks will know they were lucky to win. It was so pleasing to see the Springboks go from 57-0 to losing by just a point, but they should have won.

Of course the game could have been different had Nehe Milner-Skudder’s break been finished off or Rieko Ioane had not been tackled over the goal-line by Jesse Kriel, those 14 points could have deflated the Springboks. But it was also the home side’s own mistakes that gave the All Blacks the points they needed.

Even the last-minute controversy was avoidable because it’s always a risk rushing for the charge down; you need to come at an angle so you don’t hit the kicker head-on. It’s to protect the kicker and Damian was too square-on. He did manage to put Lima Sopoaga off his drop kick, but he also would have known he was late and risked sanction, and conceded the penalty anyway. It wasn’t the best moment in Damian de Allende’s rugby life and it changed the complexion of the game because the All Blacks were then two scores clear and with just 14 men on the field, it was an uphill task for the Springboks.

The breakdown turnovers were the key and you could see the reaction of the team after Malcolm Marx and Francois Louw stole the ball. The mix of the back row Allister Coetzee chose came in for a lot of criticism but it was done for a reason.

Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw were the two breakdown players, which you need to disrupt the All Blacks’ attacking pattern, and Pieter-Steph du Toit provided physicality and bolstered the lineout.

In terms of the Springbok kicking game, they kicked a bit more than previously, although I find it strange that the crowd boos our own scrumhalf for kicking box-kicks, while the New Zealand scrumhalf is applauded for doing it. The plan was clearly to have contestable kicks to test the All Blacks back three. In the last World Cup semi-final, Milner-Skudder dropped a few high balls and was eventually moved away from the wing, so that was clearly part of the Springboks’ plan at Newlands.

You can’t just run willy-nilly from your own half, sometimes you’ve got to kick. It must either be long into the 22, which gives you time to build a chase line or force the catcher to kick out and give you a lineout; or he will kick long which gives you the chance to put the running bomb up; or it must be contestable. If you’re accurate enough then you have a 50/50 chance of winning the ball back, or you can put in a dominant tackle, get a turnover or just slow their ball down.

That did not happen in Ross Cronje’s box-kick that led to Damian McKenzie’s spectacular try, but to be fair, David Havili was allowed too much space and time to run across the field. The Springboks have struggled with guys running across their defensive line, it raises doubts as to whether the outside defender should turn in or trust the player on the inside. It’s something the Springboks have got to tighten up.

What was probably most pleasing of all – and credit must go to their conditioning for this – was that the Springboks were much stronger at the end of the game, both physically and mentally. Playing at sea level, as predicted, was also important because it makes it a level playing field.

The performance of the pack was magnificent, they were bristling on the gain-line, they won the collisions and they really gained confidence from the lineout. The Springboks went for four-man lineouts and then the short ball, which ensured they were able to win quality possession. The maul try they scored was also really pleasing.

The forwards seem to be in that special zone right now where they are full of confidence and intensity and they are really playing for each other.

We should also not underestimate Francois Louw’s calmness and experience and just his assurance, which definitely has an impact on his fellow forwards on and off the field.

Elton Jantjies’ kick at goal that he didn’t put over was also important and at international level you’ve got to convert those chances.

The main problem with the backline was that they were a little too deep and too lateral. Everyone wishes they can have a flat attack, because that’s what causes the defence the most problems, and it was better when Handre Pollard came on. Then again, there has to be quick ruck ball for the number 10 to take the ball into the jaws of the defence.

Ironically, the shorter lineouts do actually cause a problem for the backs because then there’s not much chance for them to have a one-on one. It’s good that Allister Coetzee is backing combinations because that induces trust, but he needs to be aware if, over a period of time, players aren’t really performing.

With the backs being a bit too lateral and too deep at Newlands, it allowed the All Blacks to pick off the carriers in the backline. It was interesting when Pollard came on that he played much flatter to the gain-line, which brought his forwards more into play, for example when Malcolm Marx hit the hole and set up the try for Jean-Luc du Preez.

For the end-of-year tour it will obviously be different conditions to South Africa, especially compared to on the highveld.

Both the matches against Ireland and Wales will be played in stadia with roofs, which makes a difference. Hopefully the Springboks have now found the formula that works for them.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The Currie Cup has fallen from its perch 2

Posted on August 22, 2017 by Ken

 

There can now be no doubt that the Currie Cup has fallen from its perch as one of the most respected domestic rugby competitions in the world to an afterthought, something that seems to have become a burden for SA Rugby rather than a jewel in the crown.

While rugby romantics who grew up on the grand old tales of the Currie Cup and its great provincial rivalry will just have to get used to the fact that most of SA Rugby’s resources will now be poured into SuperRugby and the Springboks (and even the Pro14 seems to have jumped the queue in importance), there is one important factor that needs to be dealt with – SuperRugby franchises still get their players from the Currie Cup.

The Currie Cup is still a vital stepping stone from which so many players graduate into the next year’s SuperRugby competition, and most of the franchises will tell you they have half-an-eye on the Sanzaar tournament throughout all their Currie Cup activities.

And, as Jake White has pointed out, what happens now in the Currie Cup affects the Springboks in five years’ time.

“If you look at the kind of players who are playing Currie Cup now, with the Springboks and internationals away, we are saying that the Currie Cup is not what it used to be, and my fear is that we’re accepting mediocrity. When I was a youngster, the likes of Hennie Bekker, Schalk Burger Snr and Henning van Aswegen were playing for Western Province. How many 19-year-olds played then? None. And how many of the youngsters playing today would make that Western Province team? None.

“That’s a worrying sign because whatever is happening now, there’s no doubt it will impact where we will be in the next five years. There are a lot of factors – overseas players, spreading the talent base – but I don’t think people want to admit that the consequences are going to come back to bite us,” White told All Out Rugby.

The downgrading of the Currie Cup is a serious concern that is reflected in attendance figures, but how are people meant to get excited about a tournament that started while SuperRugby’s exciting climax was hogging all the attention? Watching second and third-string teams play is really only going to excite the family members and close friends of the players involved.

One of the biggest questions the current Currie Cup breeding ground is not answering is “Where are we going to get all our future props from?”

It is a disgrace that the Currie Cup is practically the only premier rugby tournament in the world that is still using 22-man squads, which forces most teams to choose only one prop replacement. When it happened last year it was almost forgiven because of the chaotic preparation for the 2016 Currie Cup [http://kenborland.com/2016/08/6043/], but making the same mistake again has drawn fully justified criticism from Sharks coach Robert du Preez and Nollis Marais of the Blue Bulls.

The reason for not moving with the times and having 23 players – which allows a full front row of replacements – is apparently financial. But given that it costs probably R6000 per player per match (and only the visiting team needs a flight and hotel), so with three games per weekend, that’s an extra R18 000 for the 23rd player.

With the Currie Cup being played over 14 weeks, that’s an extra cost of about R252 000. Surely SA Rugby can get that money from cost-cutting other areas that aren’t so vital for the welfare of the game?

It also avoids the unsavoury sight of uncontested scrums, which are open to abuse whenever a side is under pressure in that set-piece. The scrums are such a vital platform these days for front-foot ball and earning penalties and uncontested scrums are clearly unfair on the dominant team.

Speaking about the welfare of the game, women’s rugby in this country has taken a knock by it not being involved in the ongoing Women’s Rugby World Cup which has reached the semi-final stage in Ireland. The decision was made by SA Rugby to rather invest in the grassroots of women’s rugby, the U16 and U18 championships, to try and broaden the base, rather than sending a team to the World Cup to finish 10th.

While the reasoning is understandable, the enormous strides made by our national women’s cricket team shows that investing heavily at the elite level can also bring rewards.

SA Rugby needs to weigh up the merits of providing opportunities with the harsh economic realities of our time, but at the moment it seems the money men are calling all the shots.



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