Category: Sport


The dawn of a new era in South African rugby?

(Written 27 October 2013)

Dear All,

For many years, mainly in the 70s and 80s, I was a big rugby fan. Even if it was just Bellville vs. Police (club rugby), I was at Newlands almost every Saturday afternoon. I still remember the after-match party after watching, from the Railway Stand, as Robbie Blair’s conversion sailed over the poles in the dying moments of the 1976 game in which Western Province thrashed the All Blacks, 12-11. Certainly, as a WP fan, there were many enjoyable moments and much camaraderie but then, while world rugby had moved to become a more intricate game, it became difficult to watch the stodgy approach adopted by most South African teams. The ‘not losing’ approach by Western Province over the last five years or so has been most disappointing, especially given that the team has so many fine players. So, why should the outcome of the 2013 Currie Cup signal the dawn of a new era in South African rugby?

 Well, if you want a predictor of the possible success or otherwise of an organisation, take a look at the management. It will come as no surprise to find that if mediocrity is in charge, mediocrity will be the result. Exceptional results are only achieved when there are exceptional people at the top. It turns out, incidentally, that the character and personality of an organisation is that of the person at the top…, and this goes for all environments. If you want to know how South Africa was saved in the late 80s, look at Nelson Mandela; and if you want to know where South Africa is going now, look at Jacob Zuma (and sigh once more for the beloved country). Then think about the masterful way in which the Sharks dismantled the Western Province in the 2013 Currie Cup final.

 It has been suggested that the recent appointments of John Smit as the CEO of Natal Rugby and Jake White as the Director of Coaching heralds a new dawn in South African rugby. I believe it…, now more than ever…, even if they do not manage to find a place for Brendon Venter in the mix. The way in which the Sharks took control of the game was, I believe, the first signs of the influence of the new men at the top. To illustrate the point, I would like to use an example that is a little closer to home. It was with great satisfaction that I learned that in a curtain-raiser at Newlands last Saturday there were two Wynberg Old Boys in the Under-21 team, one of them the team’s captain. It has been many years since Wynberg Boys High School was so well represented at the provincial level in rugby and as someone who has been able to watch that organisation from close up, I know that this outcome is directly attributable to Wynberg’s men ‘at the top’.

 Wynberg Boys High School represented in WP U-21 team

Wynberg Boys High School represented in WP U-21 team

Sadly I think it will still be many years before I can look forward to saying that Western Province rugby is a leader in the game. The Western Cape schools will certainly continue to produce great players who will make a space for themselves on the world stage, but as a Rugby Union, the stamp of mediocrity that is the management of the Western Province will leave the team playing ‘catch-up’ to the Sharks for a long time to come.

 Regards

Jeff

(Written 29th July 2012)

Dear All,

It would come as a surprise to those who know me that I am quite satisfied with the Stormers’ 19 – 26 loss to the Sharks last Saturday, so an explanation is necessary.

In the 1970s, when I was what could only be described as a Western Province rugby fanatic, there emerged in the world two brands of rugby, the 11-man game and the 15-man game. If you look up the legacy of one Buurman van Zyl, reported by some to be the most successful coach of Northern Transvaal (now Blue Bulls) rugby, you will see that his success was built on a dour forward struggle in which the backs played a relatively small part. The key player in van Zyl’s 11-man style was a kicking fly-half and the upshot of it all was that the fans watched balefully as players like Naas Botha and Robbie Blair kicked South African rugby to death… it was dull, dull, dull winning rugby. In fact, the game as a spectacle was only revived, indeed, saved, when the kicking rules were changed.

At the same time, in Wales, Carwyn James was developing a fluid 15-man brand of the game with which the 1971 British Lions beat the All Blacks in Zealand. I well remember the exciting 15-man rugby played by the 1974 British Lions; as well as I remember the bewildered South African response as the Springboks were outplayed in every facet of the game. The touring Lions won 3 and drew 1 in the 4-match test series because the visitors had long worked out that possession of the ball and the attacking 15-man play was the better option; but sadly, the South Africans seemed to have none of the imagination required to adapt to a more complicated pattern of play and for the next decade, into isolation, South African coaches plodded on with the mantra that it did not matter how ugly ‘kick-and-charge” rugby may be, it was sufficient to get the scoreboard in one’s favour.

2012 Super 15 log

2012 Super 15 points table

So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I watched the 2012 Super 15 Stormers plod to the top of the log table. “We don’t care how boring it may be”, says the coach Coetzee, we are winning and that is all that matters… Only two teams scored fewer points than the “rope-a-dope” Stormers – and those were at the very bottom of the log – and the 2 bonus points the Stormers did accumulate were from their losses being within 7 points of the winners. Even the lowly Lions were able to score 4 tries in a match, which they did did more than once in the season!

I am satisfied with the Stormers’ loss because their “rope-a-dope” style of rugby (see elsewhere in this blog) would not have been challenged if they had won, no matter what happened in the final. At least now the people in charge of WP and Stormers rugby (who do not inspire in the least) will have to listen to the public. Had the Stormers won the semi-final, it would have meant another season, in 2013, of stodgy, navel-gazing coaching in which the marvelous talents of running players such as Habana, Aplon, de Villiers, de Jongh, Kolisi and Etzebeth will have been wasted again.

Regards

Jeff

Randy Pausch and the “head-fake”‏

(Written 31 Oct 2010)

Dear All,

Listening to the intensity with which an under-something A cricket captain’s mother was talking about the minutia of how her son was “out” on Saturday, I was reminded of a time, some fifteen years ago, when I was doing exactly the same thing. In retrospect it is easy to see how the perspective of the instant when a boy misses a ball is lost; and how quickly the agonising that goes with questions about whether the youngster had “played too far forward, or should have played back, or the umpire must have been at fault” are unnecessarily placed on a knife-edge. Fortunately hindsight also makes it easy to see how the essence of schoolboy sport will generally triumph… outweighing the foibles of well-meaning parents.

Randy Pausch in his short book The Last Lecture (2010, Hodder & Stoughton, pg. 39) gives a cryptic but good description of the essence of schoolboy sport. He calls it a “head fake”, of which he describes two varieties. Firstly, the literal head fake. This when a player, such as in rugby, is running with the ball and with his head, fakes to get a defender to think that he is going to swerve in one direction, but then actually goes off in another. Then there is the really important head fake, the figurative head fake. This where people are taught things that they do not realise they are learning until well into the process. Often they only understand what they learned long afterwards… as in my case with schoolboy sport.

Pausch makes his point very well, “When we send our kids to play organised sports – (cricket), football, soccer, swimming, whatever – for most of us it is not because we are desperate for them to learn the intricacies of the sport. What we want them to learn is far more important: teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, an ability to deal with adversity.” ibid. “There is a lot of talk these days about giving children self-esteem. (Self-esteem) is not something you can give; it is something they have to build.” The ultimate purpose of schoolboy sport is to create an environment in which children can experiment with, learn about, and build upon these essential life lessons; all the while giving them to believe that their raison d’etre is to get runs on the board, to win badges, to earn stripes. It is a wonderful, educational head fake… pity I understood it so late.

So to the Moms and Pops who are standing on the touchline or the boundary rope, take a step back. Enjoy the view, make the hamburgers with love, and cherish the fact that your little darling has been given the privilege of learning, inadvertently, strengths of character that will make a real difference in his or her life; irrespective of whether the game is won or lost. And the truly marvellous thing about this head fake is that it works in the E-team just as well as it does in the A-team… another thing it took me a long time to figure out.

Regards
Jeff
(Written 15 Apr 2011)
 
Dear All,
Watching schoolboy rugby on Saturday morning prompted a discussion about whether humans are the only species to take an interest in the outcome of physical clashes in the way that we do?
Certainly ‘play’ is something in which all mammals engage because of the important role of ‘play’ in the socialising of the young and the teaching of skills. However, the question considered here is not about ‘play’ as a medium of instruction in which we hope to teach our offspring lessons in life and how to deal with the fickle outcomes of winning and losing a game – any number of sporting activities including tiddlywinks can do that. This question is about the excitement experienced by humans (mostly males) when they stand around a field of competition waiting anxiously to see if “my gladiator is bigger than his”? Is that a uniquely human experience?
Of course not all of us have a morbid fascination with bone-crunching tackling or being able one day to “strip one’s sleeve and show (the) scars, and say, “these wounds had I on (rugby) day”’ (acknowledge the Bard – Henry V). Pippa made the point that she hated the smell of testosterone in the air on Saturday mornings as the young bucks prepared to ‘bash heads’, but, by and large, we gather to watch the contest with keen interest and do not have a sense of recoil as an ambulance goes across the field to pick up an injured player.
I expect that the root of keenly watching for the outcome of our gladiator’s performance is to be found deep in our reptilian brain, which at one time in our evolution made the difference between survival or otherwise. There was a time when having a big strong male in the troop was essential to securing a life-giving spot at a watering hole, or access to a safe cave; and I expect that subliminally we still respond to that impulse without really knowing why. We still respond excitedly to the notion that our guy is able to throw a pointed stick farther than their guy because it is still somehow comforting, but at the same time mildly confusing because the necessity of being able to throw a pointed stick has long since been superseded.
So, are we the only species to have such a keen interest in the outcome of physical contests? I don’t think so. In rutting season the outcome of male dominance in all species is the focus of all members of the effected social group because it may have a direct bearing on their very lives. There is a general state of excitement and curiosity with good reason, but the stress that goes with it dies down when the time for mating is over. When the hormonal process has taken its course the herd will once again settle into to a humdrum existence and the pride will only get tetchy if their territory is actually threatened. There are no artificial displays of strength. So why this persistence in humans? Well, as Bronowski points out (Ascent of Man, Futura, 1981, pg. 250) the human “female is receptive at all times, she has permanent breasts, she takes part in sexual selection. Eve’s apple, as it were, fertilizes mankind; or at least spurs it to its ageless preoccupation”; and as a result of this constant spurring, these young males – with the reptilian brain in control and without actually knowing what they are competing for – bash into one another incessantly.
Saturday morning rugby is a complex amalgam of sound educational activities and the expression of a deeper, hidden impulse that has been with us for millions of years. And the codgers watch from the sidelines and discuss the outcome of the competition as if it were important… which of course it is.
Regards
Jeff
(Written 6 Aug 2011)
 
Dear All,
 
Yesterday I had occasion to revisit, as bedtime reading, the cricket match described by A. G. MacDonell in England, Their England (1933).
 
The story is of a fictitious match cobbled together from experiences of a gentleman’s amateur team known as the Invalids. Incidences – not used in the story below – such as the occasion when an opposing batsman had hit a ball high into the air and as six Invalids jostled to get under it their captain (Sir John Squire) yelled out “Leave it to Thompson!” It was only after the ball had thudded into the grass that they remembered Thompson wasn’t playing that week.
 
In this wonderful story the game is played on a perfect day on the Fordenden village green; close by to which was a long bench outside the Three Horseshoes where there sat a row of elderly men, facing a row of pint tankards. One end the field was level for a few yards beyond the wicket but then sloped away rather sharply so that the bowler was visible to the batsman for only the last part of his run-up. A fielder in the deep saw nothing of the game other than the bowler walking back dourly and running ferociously up the hill, and occasionally a ball that had been driven smartly over the brow, in his direction.
 
Here is a fine paragraph:

“All round the cricket field small parties of villagers were patiently waiting for the match to begin – a match against gentlemen from London is an event in the village – and some of them looked as if they had been waiting for a good long time. But they were not impatient. Village folk are seldom impatient. Those whose lives are occupied in combating the eccentricities of God regard as very small beer the eccentricities of man.”

Regards
Jeff

Spinning Springbok Success

(Written 9 Oct 2011)
 
Dear All,
 
Peter de Villiers (Bok coach) is reported to have jumped. I hope it is true. If so, I expect that the most relieved person must be de Villiers himself. In four years he simply never looked the part and must have known that he was well out of his depth. I think Graham Henry (NZ coach) made the most sensible comment about the SA ex-coach when he said “nothing de Villiers says can be taken seriously.”
 
So what will be the outcome of the de Villiers experiment?
 
Educational and sporting organisations have a life of their own that changes slowly; often taking years for a specific leader’s influence to work its way into the culture of the institution. And sometimes it takes years to shake off the influence of a past leader. Anyone who has worked in schools and/or universities will be familiar with this phenomenon. The influence of a new head-of-department may take 2 or 3 years to become apparent and may stay in place for 2 to 3 years after they leave.
 
Jake White’s influence lasted well into de Villier’s term of office – and it served the national team well – just as I am sure that the influence of John Mitchell at the Golden Lions will stand that province in good stead for years to come. The question is whether there is a de Villiers influence in the national team, or is it all just an aimless muddle, waiting for a leader?
 
Regards
Jeff