December 30, 2011 in Uncategorized
As a young drunk spitting venom from the terraces, I hated both Jonny and Naas with equal measure. They were too damn good, and frequently engineered results I didn’t want. Specifically, Botha in his single-handed defeats of WP, and Wilkinson is his elevation of England to world champions.
Now that I’m older and only a half-drunk, I can weigh their brilliance with less bile. Wilkinson resigned recently from international rugby, and with a sigh I must acknowledge his rightful place in the pantheon of great flyhalves in my lifetime – alongside Phil Bennet, Naas Botha and Dan Carter.
On reflection, there were striking similarities between Naas and Jono. It’s self-evident that both were rugby geniuses blessed with intuition, skill and control that made them de facto generals on-field. And both had that elusive BMT at crucial moments that saw them win the biggest games of their day.
They were extraordinary goal-kickers and touch-finders who could put an up-and-under on a button. Consequently the coaches were quick to devise game plans around them, giving license to accurate kicking games out of hand. So both men became the key elements in the teams for which they played. Yet they were not completely one dimensional. Both had strengths in the skip pass, alternating the mix at key moments to catch the opposition off-foot.
While Wilkinson was the better tackler, Botha was the better dictator. By intuition both could read the game and effect its movement in chapters towards a point-scoring opportunity, which in many cases they took themselves. They were the acknowledged match-winners in any side. You sensed that team-mates shielded them in anticipation of the feats they would perform every now and then to keep nosing ahead in the game. Or to win it at the eleventh hour.
Importantly, there was a key difference between Bennet and Carter and our two protagonists. While Naas and Jono were fascinating in their mastery, they became irritating in their execution. A team of great players – like the Boks of 1986 and England of 2003 – would be overshadowed by the annoyingly handsome, sublime genius doing extraordinary things. Should you meet either by chance, you weren’t sure if you’d want to shake their hand or hit them with a right hook.
You sensed that opposition players felt the same way. Morne du Plessis acted for many when he flattened Botha with a punch at Newlands but the outcry was furious and he apologized afterwards, with genuine remorse. It only underscored the feeling that these rare geniuses become untouchables, demi-gods wrapped in cotton wool to be revered for their freakish ability, whether you like them or not.
Because many didn’t like their effect on the game. They elevated the strategy of tactical kicking above all else, necessitating powerful packs for forward domination to deliver themselves clean ball. As a result, free-flowing running rugby suffered. This suited the natural game of England and Northern Transvaal but did not necessarily please the purists.
Compare this to the balanced game played by Daniel Carter. He mixes tactical kicking with striking forays at the opposition from first phase ball. From quick turnovers you never know if he’s going to kick or send the ball in counter directions to close runners, or skip to players out wide. The Crusaders and NZ game is therefore a fusion of strategies – performed at spell-binding pace – and Carter’s versatility at close quarters is as impressive as his kicking game.
By contrast, Naas and Jono were specialist tyrants with kicking nuances that eclipsed other possibilities on the day. They hogged the spotlight with outrageous ability and, while minimizing the game into their personalities, it won games. For that we acknowledge their greatness. Yet personally I’m more than content to see them come along only once in a generation.