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Jonny Wilkinson and Naas Botha, geniuses who minimized the game

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.

Looking back: Rugby in 2011

December 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

Looking back on the year that was, with some juicy anecdotes about Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Butch James, Will Carling and the haka.

 

Disappointments

  • Bulls performance in S14
  • Stormers losing to Crusaders in SF of S14
  • Bok 2007 game plan being used for 2011 RWC
  • … and by the same players
  • RWC injury to Frans Steyn
  • Boks in QFs
  • Juan de Jongh getting so little game time

 

Highlights

1. Road-trip with the boys across NZ during RWC. ‘Nuff said.

2. Proud Maori woman in the pub explaining to us the meaning of the Haka.

Me: Who’s the ‘hairy man’ mentioned in your haka?

She: To understand, I must tell you the whole story. A famous warrior called Te Rauparaha was being chased by enemies and hid under a woman in a kumara pit, used for storing food. He feared for his life and moaned softly to himself ‘ka mate, ka mate’ (I die, I die). When his enemies left he shouted ‘ka ora, ka ora!’ (I live, I live) and thanked the hairy man – the chief of the village.

Me: Your brave warrior hid under a woman in a pit?

Interjecting Ozzie fan: Your boy hid under a Kiwi vagina…?

She: That’s right, mate, and we Maori girls are very proud of it…

Books

‘Victor – My Journey’

Butch James autobiog – ‘Butch’

Dan Retief – ‘The Springboks and the Holy Grail’

Lawrence Dallaglio – ‘World Cup Rugby Tales’

Angus Powers – ‘Rugby in our Blood’

Best Rugby Website: keo.co.za, still the best variety of articles

Best Rugby Tweeter: Will Carling @willcarling

Most Disappointing Injury: Achilles tendon, Bakkies Botha

Insights of the year

1. Watching a big game while seated between an ex-Bok and an international ref. They see things you and I don’t think of.

2. On being an All Black, as told to me by an ex-AB from the 1970’s on the plane to NZ

3. From ‘Butch’ – “I’m not a big reader of books so being sent the final edits of my own book meant more reading than I’ve done since my school days. I must confess I got my wife to read me the first eight draft chapters as bedtime stories.”

4. From ‘Victor – My Journey’ – “During the pre-RWC camp in Kruger Park, a tented campsite had been prepared in the middle of the bush for us. Not far from there lay a buffalo that had been brought down and killed by a pride of lions… We sat around till late, singing and talking…By 11pm the hyenas moved in. Before we knew it, some teammates (whose names I’d rather not mention) were leopard-crawling towards the carcass, intent on catching a hyena. John spotted them and they got a proper tongue-lashing from the captain.”

From ‘Butch’ – “The ranger shone his spotlight and there was Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Heinrich Brussow leopard-crawling through the bush…”

  

Best Schoolboy Game that I watched in 2011

SACS vs Wynberg in driving rain and a foot of mud, Kaplan refereeing. Outstanding rugby from both sides in the worst conditions. When boys play like this, you have faith in SA’s rugby future.

Game of the Year: Boks vs Samoa, RWC. I watched in a pub in Adelaide, Australia with rabid Ozzie and Kiwi fans. I was the only Saffer there, and greatly enjoyed the last laugh.

RIP: Robin Standing, Olympic sailor, Natal Fly Half and Captain in the early 1960’s, and 70 games for Bath. A gentleman of the game for whom I had much time.

Best Anecdotes revealed in 2011

1. By Schalk Burger, from ‘Rugby in our Blood’

During the 2009 Currie Cup semifinal against the Bulls at Newlands, I put in the biggest tackle I’ve ever made in my life. Fourie du Preez, one of my best friends, was on the receiving end. Obviously I didn’t target him personally; I was targeting the man with the ball. Fourie managed to get up – bravely, because I thought there was no way anyone could get up from a tackle like that. On the way to the next line-out, I jogged past and said, ‘Fourie, I’m sorry it was you. I wish it was someone I don’t actually like!’

Afterwards, I thought I’d check up on him, so I went into the Bulls change room with a beer in each hand. I gave him one, and said cheers. ‘Listen here,’ he said. ‘When I saw that tackle come, I didn’t think it was you because I didn’t think you could tackle that hard. I saw a blonde shock of hair and thought it was Duane Vermeulen.’

See the tackle on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39hmHKvCJkY

2. By Lawrence Dallaglio, from ‘World Cup Rugby Tales’

Will Carling, the English captain of the 90’s, was well respected but not necessarily much-loved. In a club game he found himself at the bottom of a ruck, and everyone took the rare opportunity to work him over with their boots. He stood up slowly and, pointing to a bleeding eye, asked ‘Which one of you bastards did this?’ There was a moment’s silence before his own 8th Man said, ‘Take your pick from twenty-nine men, Will.’

Followed quickly by the ref who chirped ‘Make that 30.’

   

Juiciest skandaal of the year: Mike Tindel and ‘friend’ in NZ nightclub

Quickest rugby wife to arrive mid-tour: Princess Zara

Response of the year

From a smiling Peter de Villiers, guest speaker at our company function. Asked if he would have done anything differently at the RWC QFs: “You’re just too fuckin scared to ask me if I’d have started with Bismark, hey?”

   

Rugby Conversations 2011

Somehow I’ve fallen deeper into a wider circle of amateur pundits this year, with the odd rugby writer, big-time coach, top referee and great player thrown in. Great spending time with them watching games, attending rugby functions and reunions, and on tour following the Boks. The many good chats and banter this year have been a highlight, as always. Being an inveterate writer, the guys sense I’m always fishing for information. So when bringing around a Bok assistant coach, and instructing him secretly to talk about anything but rugby, they got me. Nice one, guys.

Quotes of the Year

1. Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula at the Bok send-off to RWC: ‘Gaan moer hulle!

2. Snor, guest speaking, again. ‘I chose John Smit over Bismarck because Bismarck is not a team player.’ Come again?

Schoolboy of 2011: SA Schools No 8, Sikumbuzo Notshe. The kid’s from a Cape Town township on a rugby scholarship at a top school. Big, mobile, fearless, and a born leader. Great to see transformation success happening at the lower level.

Bok Star of the Future: Pat Lambie

My SA Player of the Year: Francois Hougaard

Apologies

For the opinionated rugby articles on this blog. I’m a writer at heart, and choose an angle to provoke thought and offer entertainment. So far many have disagreed with my opinions but no-one’s insulted me yet, so I’ll stick with the formula!

Credits: Photos from Internet and quotes from the books mentioned

The Smit is dead, long live the Schalk

December 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Forget rich kid from the vineyard, scion of Bok legend, silver spoon in the mouth. Consider world in union on a wine farm aptly named Welbedacht.

Schalk’s story is a rugby epic – a tale of blessed genes, being the world’s best player, carnivorous off-side foraging, red card dramas, shattered vertebrae, a wondrous comeback, RWC indiscretions and glory, Super captaincy and, ultimately, redemption.

With so many battles fought on the world’s great fields, there’s nothing more left to prove. Fittingly, the greatest honour will now be given to this much-loved son of the grape. The Smit is dead, long live the Schalk.

Schalk the Younger hailed from a post-Apartheid, born-free generation more influenced by MTV than SABC. He came complete with blonde mop, fireworks, supersized testicles and an explosion of movement that slashed high-colour graffiti across the maul.

He was Rob Louw on amphetamines, befok with the ball but befriended after the game. The man with the smile, the lightness of character, the first to crack a beer with friends and foe.

The world took notice, quickly. Springbok debut at age 20, IRB Player of the Year at 21. It all seemed too easy.

Inevitably shock and awe turned into friendly fire. Too much time scavenging on the blurry advantage line turned into compulsive yellow carding. He lost one game too many for the Boks. Whispers turned to sniggers and it seemed his career was at the crossroads.

Then came the real crisis. The maul got up in 2006 and there he lay, neck broken. Burger (Snr) released a statement saying there was a chance his son would walk again. In other words, his rugby days were over.

Truly God smiles on his own. Following a cervical fusion, he made Jake White’s squad for RWC 2007. He was showered by golden glitter after the Final but only just. Rashness of old saw him fell Junior Polu for a four-game suspension, reduced to two on appeal. He was lucky to make the Final.

His abuse of a touch judge in Super 14 the next year had us worried. Then against the British Lions he was carded for gouging in the opening minutes. Had Schalk come all the way back just to self-destruct again?

They say Rassie’s the man to thank for snuffing out the indiscretions. One autumn day, the Stellenbosch oak leaves turning, Schalk was called in and told to grow up. To take command of the Stormers and lead by example. A new chapter beckoned, and with a calmer Schalk at the helm, results followed, and his marriage to Michele.

Leading to RWC 2011 where, of all the old campaigners, Schalk was the most outstanding – winning another award as SA Player of the Year, his fifth.

The wine has now matured and is ready to be uncorked at the table of captains. Smitty and Victor are gone, like Schalk’s improprieties of old. We’re left with Schalk the Older – the scarred and sturdy anchor of Springbok rugby, playing at his vintage best.

The respect he’s earned reaches across the globe. He’s one of the few men who can stroll into an All Black change room, slap Ritchie McCaw on the back, hand him a beer and sit on his AB jersey while discussing the game.

With the mass changing of the guard, a new Springbok team must now be built. It is Schalk’s destiny to mould that team as captain. In the traditions of Paul Roos, Danie Craven and Morne du Plessis, from the Winelands comes a great man at the hour we need him most.

Considering his track record, his global impact on the game and his standing among peers, no one deserves the honour more.

Stormer Schalk gets his man

The Old Schalk – yellow indiscretions

RWC 2007 – tackling Junior Polu

RWC 2007- Been there, got the medal

vs British Lions 2009 – eye-gouging?

2011 Stormers captain

Marriage to Michele, 2011

SA Player of the Year, 2011

Ritchie McCaw gets by with a little help from his friend

Our next cappie – older, respected, more considered, the complete player

Home at Welbedacht – Tiaan, Schalk (Snr) and Schalk (Jnr)

Oxford vs Cambridge – old rugby values

December 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

Academic degrees littered the field like scrum-caps as Oxford hacked Cambridge apart in last week’s 130th Varsity Match. Eagerly anticipated, this game is much loved by purists for its evocation of old rugby values. Here linesmen in shorts and blazers studiously ignore the illegal knee in the back. Boys introduce themselves with fists before and after the whistle, as it was long ago. You sense this is the game created as soccer hooligans wrestled a belligerent Web Ellis for their ball. Masters at Rugby School were drinking tea in the staffroom at the time, not dispatching boys from the fray for an elbow to the eye.

 

In such a manner did Oxford overawe a game Cambridge. Further entertainment came from the thankfully weaker structures of amateur rugby. Both defences had holes larger than their varsity campuses, making for long-range strikes behind the gain lines. There were no Sonny Bill off-loads or specialist foragers at the breakdown. Just brutal sweeps of Neanderthal bodies, directed by clinical academic minds, as the Oxford pack bullied their way around light blue country.

 

Tom Mitchell, the England Students international, was both composed and incisive at flyhalf for Oxford. We’ll see him soon in the sanitized cleanliness of professional rugby. Other toffs with double-barrel names also stood out, too many to mention. An American centre employed the rush defence with heroic success given his lack of support. A Swiss international tackled as if bringing down cows for bell-strapping. It was all good and fiery, and Twickenham rose in jubilation as players broke the advantage line and props punched one another in the way they should.

Only the commentators disappointed, pausing between puffs on Coleridge’s opium pipe. For they were certainly muddled. In giving the man-of-the-match to a nobody, they denied Oxford’s captain, John Carter. The number 8 grew in stature over eighty minutes, barging through defences and providing a focus for Oxford’s 28-10 victory. He sacrificed body and eye – and that’s what it took in this amateur derby of academia that was more entertaining than a professional game.

 

 

Photo courtesy of DSTV and PVR Pause

Don’t make Allister Coetzee the new Bok coach

December 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

Allister Coetzee is a talker. A great talker, but perhaps an interminable talker. Funny, articulate, intelligent, passionate, the kind of talker who silences the braai with one-man entertainment. He’s the leading contender, they say, for Bok coach. Who knows what SARU will do, but I reckon AC is not the man.

Yes, AC is a rugby man to the core, and handles the pressure with practiced ease. I really like him – he’s a quintessential rugby man. At heart he’s a politician qualifying him for dealing with SARU’s melodramas. He’s also astute and experienced as his track record shows. Assistant to Jake White, winner of the de facto Currie Cup – the SA Round of the Super 16, and transformer of the Stormers into two-time home semi-finalists. No silverware, but Jake had less before he took over.

The players also like him because he’s affable. And this is the problem. He’s not a big-stick man. Instead he has vast reservoirs of motivational talk, espoused with inimitable inserts of Kapie banter and infectious laughter. A bit too much talk, methinks, when the calculated one-liner is used by hard coaches as a whip, its utterance laced with menace.

You sense that Graham Henry has this approach down-pat, as did Kitch Christie. Nick Mallet was its most intimidating exponent. Distil the message to its essence, chilli it with some bitter F*cks, and deliver it with a snarl. Unfortunately, this is not AC style. And right now, I reckon the Boks need this severity from a cantankerous bastard with a solid coaching record. A coach who is not their friend, but The Coach.

Thing is, Peter de Villiers left a legacy of garbled miscommunication that must be culled immediately. Personally I liked his motivational speeches – as evidenced by footage inside the Bok change-room during the British Lions tour. But the mangled media-speak, combined with the little squeak, tainted the comms channels in Bok-land. You can’t blame Snor for his genetic attributes but you can say the time has come for more contrite authority. Allister Coetzee, unfortunately, is more continuity than change in this respect.