for quality writing

Ken Borland

Springboks suffering due to lack of solid structure below them 5

Posted on October 17, 2016 by Ken


The Springboks’ humiliating defeat in Durban last weekend was a painful reminder of the gulf in quality that exists between the administration and structure of the game in New Zealand and back here in South Africa, with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen making sure to mention the decision-makers in their rugby when he was asked for the reasons behind their world record equalling run of 17 successive wins.

A solid structure from schoolboys to the Springboks is what is needed for our rugby to remain amongst the best in the world, not yet another overhaul of the national team and their coaches; that’s just treating the symptom, shuffling people around, and does not address the root cause of our problems.

And, as great as next week’s Rugby Indaba sounds – except for the unfortunate two coaches who have their preparations for the Currie Cup final disrupted (another example of Saru’s awful treatment of their flagship competition) – it’s not going to address our real problems either. There might be some good ideas about game plans and what-not, but the coaches and the franchise CEOs do not have the power to change the structural failings in rugby, that lies with the South African Rugby Union and their turkeys who will steadfastly not vote for Christmas.

Below the national sides, there should just be six teams playing fully professional rugby based in the major cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein. And those six unions should have the power in South African rugby, not the eight lesser unions, largely amateurish and as relevant as dinosaurs, which are currently the tail that wags the dog.

Below that, all 14 unions can have semi-professional teams, but the amount of money that can be saved by only having six fully professional teams and by eight economically unviable organisations no longer drawing over R20 million a year in Saru grants could go a long way towards keeping our players in the country.

Just like in New Zealand, talented rugby players must fight for a limited number of professional contracts through their performances at club level, that lead to them playing for their provinces and then being chosen for a Super Rugby deal.

The vast majority of schoolboy players in New Zealand don’t become professional rugby players when they finish their education. They go to university and play rugby there, or play for their local club side while working, which is why so many All Blacks have had interesting occupations like lumberjack, piano mover or, as in the case of Aaron Smith, apprentice hairdresser.

It’s a system that builds character and ensures only the fittest and hungriest players survive to reach the top.

Good schoolboy players in South Africa should be lauded in their school hall and with selection for provincial and national schoolboy teams; not with professional contracts and way too much exposure on television.

There is far too great an emphasis on schoolboy rugby in South Africa and that just creates entitled, spoilt players, wastes a lot of late-developing talent, kills our clubs and also gets in the way of transformation in many cases.

This is not to say that our current Springboks and their management are beyond blame. The All Blacks have a relentless drive to improve on and off the field every day, they see every challenge as a means of getting better.

Do our Springboks and their coaching staff have that same hunger? The same desire to do whatever it takes? Because it will also come down to that if they are going to close the gap with the All Blacks.

Any top professional sportsman worth his salt would turn a record 57-15 hammering at home into motivation to lift their conditioning and skills to new levels.

The South African cricket team has just completed an historic 5-0 series whitewash of world champions Australia, with captain Faf du Plessis saying a culture camp they held before the start of the summer has ensured that they are now playing as a team again and, most importantly, are really challenging each other to be better.

Now that’s the sort of indaba that could be useful for our rugby players and coaches, but the administrators still need to make the major, unselfish changes that will really benefit the game in this country.


Hansen not concerned with winning streak 0

Posted on October 20, 2014 by Ken

It’s been three long years since the All Blacks lost to the Springboks – and 22 Tests since their previous defeat against anyone (v England at Twickenham on 1 December 2012) – but their coach Steve Hansen is not as concerned with maintaining the winning streak as he is with delivering a quality performance on Saturday at Ellis Park.

Of course, he is in the lovely position of not having to worry if they lose on Saturday, while Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will bear the full brunt of the public’s obsession with beating the number one side in the world for the first time in six attempts.

“For us, it’s not about the winning streak but about the quality of performance, that’s hugely important. Our heads need to be in the right place, our preparation is about getting that right, and then Saturday is fun time.

“But it’s no fun if you don’t play well. But we have a quite a bit of talent in this group and if we play as well as we can, then it will take a good team to beat us,” Hansen said on Thursday.

With some people, including former coach Graham Henry, warning that the All Blacks are setting themselves up for a fall at the World Cup, there have even been suggestions that defeat might be good for New Zealand. Hansen dismissed such notions.

“I’ve never concurred with people saying you need to lose to learn. It hurts to lose, so why do you want to go through that to learn? We learn when we review games that maybe we should have lost, but we won.

“People say sometimes you have to get burnt to learn, but you can tell a flame is hot, you don’t need to put your hand in it,” Hansen said.

The All Blacks coach said Saturday’s Test would be decided by the tight fives and injury has forced the visitors to go with relative rookies at loosehead prop and tighthead lock.

Wyatt Crockett withdrew from selection with bad cuts to the face and has been replaced by Crusaders prop Joe Moody, who comes to his first Test start with a junior commonwealth games bronze medal in wrestling to his name.

Jeremy Thrush will partner with Sam Whitelock in the second row after Brodie Retallick failed to recover from concussion.

The 26-year-old Moody seemed pretty relaxed and was even able to make a subtle dig at his opposite number, the vastly-experienced Jannie du Plessis.

“Jannie is a bit different to what we normally get in New Zealand, he attacks the hooker much more, while our tightheads normally scrum straighter. But we’ve done our homework and I’m sure the scrums will go well,” Moody said.

The All Blacks’ winning streak is about thorough preparation and supreme conditioning, but it’s also about the character of the players under pressure, as Hansen stressed.

“We’ve been able to keep our composure in really tight situations, but we’ve had a bit of luck as well. We practise the moment without pressure so we can do it under pressure. As a group, this team has shown it is mentally strong and has great composure,” Hansen said.

All Blacks team: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Malakai Fekitoa, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Beauden Barrett, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read, 7-Richie McCaw, 6-Jerome Kaino, 5-Samuel Whitelock, 4-Jeremy Thrush, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Keven Mealamu, 1-Joe Moody. Reserves – 16-Dane Coles, 17-Ben Franks, 18-Charlie Faumuina, 19-Steven Luatua, 20-Liam Messam, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Colin Slade, 23-Ryan Crotty.

Surviving a diet of ‘facts’, stats & obfuscation 0

Posted on October 22, 2012 by Ken


Rugby journalists tend to receive a steady diet of “facts”, statistics and obfuscation from coaches and players in the regular course of their duties; and filters, a fair degree of cynicism and good old fashioned fact-checking are all necessary in making sense of it all.

Steve Hansen (New Zealand), Robbie Deans (Australia) and our very own Heyneke Meyer have been the coaches under pressure in this year’s Rugby Championship (Argentina’s Santiago Phelan has had immunity because of his team’s new boy status) and all of them have had their moments of spreading disinformation and spin.

Following the Springboks’ convincing victory over the Wallabies last weekend, Deans is probably the coach whose head is closest to the chopping block. Being a Kiwi certainly doesn’t help in Australia.

The former All Blacks fullback tries to add extra gravitas to his press conference utterings by speaking slowly and staring intently. The fact that he is the most successful SuperRugby coach ever, steering the Canterbury Crusaders to five titles between 2000 and 2008, and is generally a pleasant bloke to chat to, means that the magnifying glass of closer scrutiny is not always applied to what he has to say.

One of the surest signs someone is feeling the pressure is when they try something smart or out of the ordinary. It’s a classic Heyneke Meyer principle that rugby is a simple game and as soon as the opposition gets you to deviate from your normal game plan or strengths, they have the advantage over you.

It was a tell-tale sign of strain when Deans, a thoroughly decent bloke, used a sneak move involving his front row at Loftus Versfeld that would ultimately lead to his team finishing the match with 14 men.

Benn Robinson, arguably the best loosehead prop in the world, was surprisingly substituted after just 30 minutes on Saturday, with Deans later confirming that it was a “strategic move”.

He was replaced by James Slipper, but it was inevitable that Robinson would return, with either Slipper or Ben Alexander “developing” an injury in the second half.
Sure enough, Alexander hobbled from the field in the 67th minute with a fresh Robinson returning.

But the cunning plan backfired on the Wallabies because, in a game that saw them suffer a freakish number of injuries, Robinson’s return was the seventh substitution and the maximum allowed, so when hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau needed to be replaced due to genuine injury, they couldn’t and had to make do with 14 men.

After the game, Deans sallied forth into a tale of woe about their injuries, claiming they only had 12 men standing in the latter stages of the game and fired a salvo at the fourth referee, who he blamed for not allowing Polota-Nau to be replaced after initially saying he could be.

Deans also claimed that Robinson’s trips to and from the bench were “totally irrelevant” to the situation, which was disingenuous in the extreme.

Hansen was promoted from forwards coach to replace Sir Graham Henry as the All Blacks head coach after their World Cup triumph and he has had some difficulties of his own in satisfying the demanding New Zealand rugby public.

While most observers would agree the All Blacks have been some way off their best until last weekend in Argentina, Hansen has been extolling their dominance and brilliance after every game, including the Dunedin match against the Springboks which even had the home media giving most of the praise to the South Africans.

As far as Meyer goes, he is not afraid to engage with the media, and there have been some memorable technical discussions where he has allowed his passion for the game to overflow – and he has given an impromptu coaching session to journalists! There is a memorable photograph on a reporter’s cellphone of Springbok media manager De Jongh Borchardt lying on the ground with a bunch of media guides doubling as the ball and Meyer bent over him demonstrating the correct ball-stealing technique at a ruck.

And if you ask Meyer why he has chosen Arno Botha ahead of Keegan Daniel, he will give a detailed, reasoned response.

It is all rather refreshing because his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, was always very reluctant to talk about technical matters or even to explain selections beyond “He’s the guy I think we want to go with this week”.

De Villiers has not been so chicken to speak about where he believes Meyer is going wrong.

Meyer treats rugby as a science and is extremely statistics-driven. While it may seem robotic and liable to inhibit flair and experimentation, it does ensure that the coach is not led on flights of fancy by his perceptions or emotions.

Statistics can reveal some fascinating insights. I was intrigued on Tuesday when kicking coach Louis Koen said Morne Steyn averages a 78% success rate when kicking at goal in Tests and the only year he has been above 80% was during his annus mirabilis in 2010 when he was at 90%.

Facts are sometimes forgotten in the mists of time, though, and I do get mildly irritated when Meyer insists on saying Jannie du Plessis is the only member of the World Cup pack still playing. Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Tendai Mtawarira and CJ van der Linde were all also in New Zealand, although the tighthead prop was the only one who started the infamous quarterfinal defeat to Australia.

It would probably help considerably if South African rugby fans could begin to watch games with a more analytical eye rather than just blind emotion. How many fans have picked up that the Springboks have kicked less than their opposition in every Rugby Championship game this year?

Who would the public say had the greater impact in the weekend hammering of the Wallabies – Zane Kirchner or Pat Lambie?

One should hastily add that the media also needs to lift their reporting to new levels, with astonishing numbers attributing Saturday’s win to “a new game plan”.


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