22 September 2016

Growing Pains: Unpacking the ‘Rebuilding Phase’ of A Struggling Team

Daniel Gallan

Change takes time, and more often than not is a difficult and arduous process. In the realm of elite sport, a ruthless industry to begin with, change often means sacrificing results in order to change course and head in a new direction. For the Springboks, South Africa’s proud national rugby team, a change in identity has coincided with a dramatic downturn in performances. Naturally, the media and public are up in arms, but should they be showing a touch more patience and understanding? CONQA Sport unpacks this rebuilding phase that South African rugby is going through and offers a sympathetic and measured view on the situation. 

Like this stadium under construction, South African rugby is working towards something tangible and cohesive. Unfortunately, this rebuilding phases has coincided with poor results on the field.  Image supplied by Action Images / Maxim Shemetov.

Like this stadium under construction, South African rugby is working towards something tangible and cohesive. Unfortunately, this rebuilding phases has coincided with poor results on the field. Image supplied by Action Images / Maxim Shemetov.

New Zealand’s All Blacks are making a mockery of the game of rugby. By dismantling their once great rivals, the Springboks of South Africa, by 41 points to 13 in Christchurch last Saturday, the Kiwis have wrapped up the Rugby Championship title with two games to spare.

The All Blacks are currently holding the yardstick a kilometre above the heads of all their rivals. They are setting an impossible standard that appears well beyond the reach of any other team in world rugby at the moment.

After the All Blacks’ most recent victory, New Zealand rugby scribes have raised concerns with the current state of the game globally. “Rugby was the loser,” wrote columnist Chris Rattue for the New Zealand Herald before proclaiming that, “World rugby is in a parlous state.”

Richard Knowler for Fairfax Media likened the All Blacks dominance to that of “a cruel cat that likes to toy with a bird with a busted wing.” To be fair, it’s not just the hapless Springboks that have been so effortlessly dispatched. Right now, the All Blacks are a behemoth that can do what they want with apparent impunity.

The men from the Land of the Long White Cloud have won the last two Rugby World Cups, in 2011 and 2015, and are undefeated at home since 2009. They have won 89 of their last 100 matches and their current winning streak of 15 does not look like ending anytime soon.

What makes this run all the more remarkable is that it is coinciding with a period that should be categorised as “rebuilding”. After their 2015 World Cup triumph, they lost over 800 caps’ worth of experience when Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu all hung up their Test boots. Any other team in world sport would have struggled to fill the chasm left by such an exodus. If anything, the All Blacks have improved with multiple deputies stepping up and threatening to one day eclipse those departing legends.

In contrast, the Springboks have regressed after losing a number of stalwarts. Victor Matfield, Jannie and Bismark du Plessis, Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger are all no longer available. Furthermore, these players represented a sizable chunk of the leadership group within the team. Losing them has not only impacted the way the Springboks play but perhaps more tellingly, the way the culture is implemented within the group.

Is it any wonder then that the Springboks are struggling? Add in the fact that they have an entirely new coaching staff, are trying to rework the way the team plays and are doing so with the extra social and political pressures that come with the territory and you have an environment where winning is not the guaranteed thing many South African rugby fans think it should be.

Perhaps if the All Blacks were struggling, expectations would be lower. As it is, the Springboks are measured against an impossible standard set by a team that defies all logic.

After the Springboks lost to Australia the week before their humiliation in Christchurch, Craig Lewis, a well-respected rugby writer in the Republic, called for the return of some of the old guard that brought so much success in the past. He said, “At the start of a new era when winning should really be the only priority, these are the type of players that could have made key contributions to achieving just that.”

To be fair to Lewis, the addition of some of the European based players would add an immediate impact, but if this is indeed the start of a new era, is winning in the short term more important that building towards the future?

Winning is a habit and grooming players that are accustomed to it will enable them to be better equipped in highly pressurised situations. The confidence of securing a last minute come-from-behind victory or holding on to a narrow lead stays in the players’ psyche. They look at their teammates with confidence knowing that they are part of a unit that has navigated these waters before.

Losing is also a habit and constantly being on the wrong side of the result can damage a player’s development. In elite sport, losing should be avoided at all costs but outside of a world cup or major trophy, winning for the sake of winning can result in stagnation.

Take the question South African rugby has at flyhalf. It is arguably the most pivotal position on the field and games are often won or lost based on how a team’s number 10 performs. South Africa has played two very contrasting flyhalves in this Rugby Championship: Elton Jantjies and Morne Steyn.

Elton Jantjies has failed to replicate the form he showed for the Lions while wearing the Springbok jersey. Many have called for his head but patience is needed during this rebuilding phase. 

Elton Jantjies has failed to replicate the form he showed for the Lions while wearing the Springbok jersey. Many have called for his head but patience is needed during this rebuilding phase. 

Steyn embodies the old ways of South African rugby. He is 32, has never had great pace and is not renowned for his ability to put runners into gaps and spearhead a dynamic backline. What he does do is kick extremely well. No other player eligible to wear the green and gold of the Springboks kicks out of hand as well as Steyn. His ability to keep the opposition pegged back in their own half as a result of his 50m raking kicks to the corner is a forward pack’s dream. Furthermore, he is a sniper from the tee, continuously keeping the scoreboard ticking along.

These are attributes associated with winning Test matches. Steyn might not light up a highlights reel but he gets the job done. More combine harvester than Ferrari.

Janjties is the antithesis to Steyn. The 26 year has made a name for himself at the Lions where he played an integral role in the Johannesburg franchise’s enterprising and expansive style of play. His ability to unleash his backline was the primary reason he was selected as the Springboks starting 10 for the Rugby Championship once the more experienced Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard were ruled out through injury.

The last regime under Heyneke Meyer was criticised for being one dimensional and boring with a heavy emphasis on kicking. This game plan was once most successful in world rugby with both England and South Africa winning the 2003 and 2007 World Cups with a combined focus on forward dominance and a strong kick and chase game.

But the wheel has turned and that model is no longer the blueprint for success. Sure, the foundations of a solid kicking game and dominant forward pack will always bring some joy (see the recent England-Australia series as proof), but New Zealand has shown that there is a more effective (and more entertaining) way to skin this cat. The All Blacks might kick more than every other team, but they do it more effectively and combine it with scintillating running game. Springbok fans have been crying out for a shift in mentality from those in charge in South Africa. Enter Elton Jantjies.

Jantjies cut his teeth under the tutelage of John Mitchell and Carlos Spencer, two Kiwis who encouraged the young man to express himself on the field. Now as the focal point of the incredible Lions who have wowed pundits with a very un-South African style of play, he is a flyhalf that showed the potential to drag SA rugby out of the dark ages.

Unfortunately Test rugby is a massive step up from franchise level and Jantjies has struggled to emulate his domestic form. Basic mistakes at crucial times have cost his country points and as the critics grow louder he has dropped further back into a hole both on and off the field.

It is in these dark times that armchair experts change their tune and clamour for the old ways. “We need to play South African rugby”, they’ll say, forgetting that is precisely the thing we are trying to remedy. “The only way to beat New Zealand and Australia is to play the way we know”. Perhaps, but at what cost?

As anyone who has ever visited a therapist or sought to remedy behavioural or psychological problems knows, changing behaviours is often a difficult and painful process. The same applies for a sports team. We can’t expect South African rugby to change its identity on the field without accepting that there are going to be some disappointing results.

The outspoken critic and writer, Mark Keohane has said that, “the Boks are not a work in progress” but he is wrong. They are most certainly a work in progress and in this game progress often begins with a step backwards before you can take two steps forward.

Keohane has also called for the return of Jake White, the 2007 World Cup winning coach who is now in charge of Montpellier in the French Top 14. He argues that “Coetzee, White’s assistant coach [from] 2004-07, is not good enough to lead the Boks without the guidance of a mentor.” Keohane is entitled to his opinion but his piece makes no mention of the fact that this is a team in transition and that digging up the past does not facilitate progress.

Coetzee did not inherit world beaters. Under Meyer, the Boks were just as woeful as they are now while implementing the old style of play. They lost to Japan in the 2015 World Cup as well as Argentina at home for the first time. Those yearning for a return to the “South African style” of rugby clearly have very short memories. The truth is that this is going to get worse before it gets better.

Dropping Jantjies for a more traditional 10, reverting to type or recalling old coaches and players will do little more than provide remedies for the symptoms while doing nothing for the disease. Like a teenager going through puberty, South African rugby is undergoing an identity crisis. We all need to be patient and persist with this new philosophy. The Jantjies experiment has not been tested long enough and should only be judged after the upcoming home fixtures against Australia and New Zealand.

Perhaps the answer Jantjies' problems would be a more level headed scrumhalf than Faf de Klerk. It could be that he needs an inside centre that straightens the line and give him confidence to attack the line. Perhaps Jantjies is out of his depth and once Lambie and Pollard return to fitness he may find himself frozen out. The point is that we don't have a large enough sample yet to make a definitive claim and should sacrifice the rest of this Rugby Championship to find one.

Much like the Olympics, rugby is constantly whirling in a four year cycle. The 2019 World Cup in Japan should be the primary focus (just as the 2007 World Cup was Jake White’s priority). This year, and even the next, should be all about development. Results are important and few things get the blood pumping like a dominant Springbok side, but results should not come at the expense of positive change.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.