England end ten year drought amid Springbok chaos

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Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Until this weekend, the same could be said of the England rugby team’s matches against South Africa, a team they have not beaten since 2006. Saturday’s 37-21 win marked their 11th win in a row, stretching back to a dead rubber against Uruguay in last year’s world cup (I expect pages of articles claiming that beating New Zealand’s 18 match run is now merely a formality) and continued the revolution in English rugby stemming from Eddie Jones’ appointment as head coach last year.

The manner of victory was especially impressive. In wet, slippery conditions, it was expected that England might go back to basics and play an aerial kicking game, the fact that they chose to run the ball, looking for offloads and quick passes is testament to Jones’ coaching skill, and shows that the strategy that carried his Japan side past the Springboks last year is a winning one. Ben Youngs was impressive at scrum-half, quickly distributing the ball once it had gone to ground, and making two breaks with a dummy pass that lead to George Ford and Owen Farrell’s tries. Of course there were issues, the penalty count in the first third of the match was alarmingly high, and will need to be brought under control – something I’m sure the England setup will take into account and will be working on improving before next week’s game against Fiji.

Contrast this with their opponents. South Africa continued the malaise that has seeped into their international team. There were warning signs last weekend against the Barbarians, and this match was given ‘must win’ status by many. All that can be done now is break down and dissect what has happened to a once fearsome national side.

The result gives me the chance to segway neatly into a more general discussion about the state of South African rugby. 12 months ago, the rugby community was reeling from the elimination of all Northern Hemisphere teams from the World Cup before the semi-final stage. The shoe now seems to be on the other foot for South Africa in particular, and this latest set-back has caused an already problematic situation to become much worse, with criticism of the Springboks back home reaching levels previously unheard of. Ultimately the problems come down to two main issues: the racial issues that have plagued South Africa for years, and issues with the coaching setup within the South African national team that have seen them lose their rugby identity, and have left the team bereft of confidence.

The second one comes without the historical baggage of the first, so I’ll tackle that first. The problem in South Africa is not because of a decline in player production, it is almost entirely down to a lack of direction from the coaching staff that has left the team impotent in both attack and defense. The list of South African players lining up for other rugby playing nations –CJ Stander in Ireland, Scott Spedding in France, Brad Barett in England and most recently Cornell Du Preez for Scotland to name a few- shows that South Africa have a healthy production line of top players that are generally world class. The coaching issues stem largely from head coach Coetzee. In defense, the Springboks were disorganized; they seemed incapable of even matching up against the opposition at the ruck. The moment the ball is taken into contact, someone needs to be marking the opposition scrum-half. Ben Youngs made two tries because South Africa did not have a system in place for defensive procedures when the ball exits the ruck, leaving enormous gaps for England to exploit. This is caused by a lack of confidence in the coaches’ plans, and a lack of communication on the field because the players do not know what is expected of them. Contrast that with England, who have become a well oiled machine in recent matches, and who’s success has been rightly attributed to the coaching staff’s insistence that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them at any given moment.

In attack the Springboks need to abandon the kicking game they seem to be adopting under Coetzee. South Africa have always been a team that revolved around power and physicality. They should be running with the ball in hand – a tactic they adopted part way through the second half that lead to two tries. They also need to be putting pressure on the opposition lineout. For a team with such a large physical presence, to not contest lineouts in their own 22 was bizarre. Finally they need to be much quicker when the ball is taken into contact. Compare the ball distribution speed of Youngs and Rudy Paige, and the problem becomes clear. Slow ball kills the game and limits a team’s options in attack, South Africa needed to recycle much quicker and keep their players charging forward.

The second issue is unfortunately tied to South African racial demographics, politics, and a growing drive to impose quotas on several national teams in South Africa. The South African Rugby Union has committed itself to having at least a 50-50 racial split in the Springbok team by the next world cup in 2019- an admirable goal, and one that the SARU should be striving towards. What I take issue with is the method by which they are going about achieving it. A top down quota on the national team is simply a poor solution to a problem that runs much deeper than the SARU is willing to realize, and it is an impossible to balance a system that places limitations on the current selection pool in South Africa with the desire for continued success on the international stage. What the SARU should be doing is looking at a lower level, providing equal opportunity in rugby in the very areas and communities they want represented in the national team. Rugby in South Africa has an unfortunate image as an elitist sport (a sentiment that is not exclusive to South Africa), and it is in tackling this image and broadening the horizons of the game outside of its traditional heartlands within South Africa that will deliver the results the SARU wants. In the 2009 film Invictus, there is a touching scene where the Springboks spend the day in one of the more disadvantaged areas of the country teaching the local children about rugby, its rules and how its played. Surely a system similar to this would be more beneficial on a national scale, it would pique someone’s interest in rugby that they may never have had, it could tap into a potentially enormous talent pool (people of color make up roughly 90% of South Africa’s population), and it could broaden the appeal of rugby in a country that has seen attendance slowly decline over the years. Ultimately a quota system that results in a lower caliber of rugby is detrimental to the progress of the game. If the Springboks’ decline continues under the quota system, what messages will that send to a young person of color hoping to get involved? That they can’t compete on merit? Most alarmingly it may even lead to thoughts that they simply aren’t good enough – surely a much more racist notion than any good a quota system will do.

South Africa’s next challenge is a slightly easier prospect, a trip to Rome to play Italy. Whoever was in charge of organizing Italy’s fixtures for this period will be hoping not to run into Sergio Parisse on the streets of Rome – they have played a wounded New Zealand fresh off their first ever defeat to Ireland, and now have to contend with a South Africa side who have surrendered a long unbeaten run of their own. The Springboks will be heavy favourites, but the spectre of the wider problems in their game will not be far from their minds.

Photograph: commons.wikimedia

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