‘Jacques, Siya, thanks for your time. Congratulations on the win. Your style of play is very boring, though. Have you maybe considered missing more tackles so us neutrals can enjoy the game some more?’
If you were to ask your elders who their favourite rugby players to watch were, they’d probably list off names like Gareth Edwards, David Campese and Christian Cullen. Edwards; a man who could slip through any gap, could reverse-pass with both hands and gave countless scoring passes. Campese; could change direction at the drop of a hat, gave sumptuous no-look passes and scored the second-most tries in international rugby history. Cullen; always played with his head up, could see space while blindfolded and had a sense of balance to die for.
Do you ever wonder who the current crop of rugby fans’ answer will be to this question in years to come?
Growing up, this writer’s favourite player was Shane Williams. Not only did he have a mouth-watering finishing ability, but his willingness to create was unlike any winger in world rugby. Ten years on from Williams’ retirement, most international wingers are a bit bigger than Shane was, but Cheslin Kolbe has taken the mantle of rugby’s greatest hotstepper. But more importantly than that, he plays in the best team in the world.
With their heavy, nasty pack, South Africa have developed the greatest set-piece in the world; coupled with a superlative kicking strategy and a magnitude-9 defensive line. Are these not the fundamentals of how to win rugby matches?
Judging by some of the discourse on Kolbe’s South Africa, you’d imagine their tactic is to boot the ball off the field, all sit in a circle and listen to Handré Pollard deliver a lecture on War and Peace while the opposition run in try after try. Now that would be a boring sight for a South African fan. In actuality, Jacques Nienaber’s side have developed a simple but effective game plan that suits their personnel to a T.
With their musclebound, gnarled pack, South Africa have developed the greatest set-piece in the world; coupled with a superlative kicking strategy and a magnitude-9 defensive line. Are these not the fundamentals of how to win rugby matches? Is it not common knowledge that the best way to beat an opposition is to hit them hard, starve them of possession and play in their half?
Let’s address some of the comments that are being made. Because if I don’t, Nienaber certainly will have to. After the Boks beat Argentina with aplomb, pundit and former South Africa coach Nick Mallett stated: “Don’t criticise South Africa for playing this type of Test match when they can win.” During every single press conference, Nienaber is asked to defend the Boks’ style of play as though he’s up in front of the jury. They have won a treasure trove of silverware. Let me tell you, no South African fan is moaning at their team for being ‘boring’.
Let’s return to the question I posed earlier. Who will South African fans describe as their favourite player in years to come? Pieter-Steph du Toit? Lukhanyo Am? Frans Malherbe? Du Toit; the hardest hitter in the game whose tackle choice is always bang on. Who cares if he can sidestep? Am; always wins collisions, never loses the ball. Defensively flawless. Don’t hate him for not attempting pointless chip-and-chases. Malherbe; If you want to moan about his lack of 30-metre miss-passes, I challenge you to scrummage against him.
Sure, if we saw the Boks play more expansively, it may be more exciting to the neutral but it may decrease their chances of winning, which, it’s worth remembering, is the point of international rugby.
It’s unbelievable that this needs justifying, but the only people whose entertainment Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus care about is that of themselves, their coaches, players and supporters. And what’s more entertaining than winning? Well, nothing. Think twice before asking them if they want to adapt their game plan. Sure, if we saw the Boks play more expansively, it may be more exciting to the neutral but it may decrease their chances of winning, which, it’s worth remembering, is the point of international rugby.
Territorial rugby is what wins matches at the moment. There is a beauty to it, which may take some getting used to. Watching a half-back find space and pump a ball into a backfield is just as difficult as some of the ‘flashier’ skills in rugby. This won’t always be the case. At some point, attacking rugby will naturally become the trend again, at which point it will become valid to ask the Boks why they aren’t complying – unless they’re still winning.
We have established that South Africa have no obligation to play a certain way or entertain anyone outside of their support group, so long as they are winning. The next question: is the Springboks’ style of play really that boring? I mean, let’s have a quick think about some of the tries they’ve been scoring while people have thrown this discourse in their faces.
Against Argentina, Aphelele Fassi scored an absolute ‘worldie’ in which Elton Jantjies placed an inch-perfect kick to bounce into the winger’s hands, centimetres out from the touchline. From the level of precision on the skill, to Fassi’s juggle and near-breach of the white line to his left, is that not the definition of why sport is entertaining?
Lukhanyo Am scored a blinding try in which Cheslin Kolbe burned a world-class defender in Chris Harris, got hit hard by Elliot Daly and still managed to muster an offload to score… what’s not to love?
Lest we forget, there’s also the South Africa A game against the Lions. There’s no double standard here – if people wanted to claim that was a full South Africa team at the time (which it was – and an entirely legitimate strategy from Erasmus), we’ll credit them as a full South Africa team now. Am scored a blinding try in which Kolbe burned a world-class defender in Chris Harris, got hit hard by Elliot Daly and still managed to muster an offload to score… what’s not to love?
Long story short, the Springboks don’t need yours truly to back them up. They’ll be very pleased to continue executing a world-beating game plan and frustrating the world’s rugby fans who aren’t paying enough attention to realise the Boks don’t care if it’s entertaining them. International rugby is better for having a good Springbok side, and while the discourse of ‘boring rugby’ may be loud now, the history books will tell you Nienaber’s side have won a Rugby Championship, a World Cup and a Lions series. They certainly won’t tell you it sent neutral fans from England to sleep.
One more time, I will reiterate the importance of ‘entertainment’ in international rugby. Williams was my favourite player growing up. A master entertainer, he felt like a bit of a one-man team at times. Kolbe, however, has won a World Cup and a Lions series. He is a physically small cog in rugby’s largest, most high-functioning machine. For anyone who enjoys watching their team win, he is one of many players in this Springbok side who is a joy to watch.
More stories from Will Owen
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