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Saturday, June 23, 2007

SA vs NZ: A scientist perspective and concern about big picture thinking

I guess as a South African, it's almost a duty to write something on today's rugby match between the All Blacks and South Africa. Not that I feel obliged, because like any other sports fan, it is something I have a firm opinion on. I'm sure you know the score - New Zealand overturned a deficit of 9-points at one stage to win 26-21, and bring SA down to earth somewhat.

The danger is getting too involved in a sport where I'm not 100% confident in my technical knowledge. And I have no doubt that by the time you read this, you'll have seen a dozen experts picking the game apart, and heard opinions from people who I am sure know the technicalities of the game far more than I do! And I'm a big believer in staying within the scope of your expertise - training, running and cycling, I know, the rest are hobbies. So I won't be another armchair fan who solves the world's problems without getting his hands dirty!

However, like anyone, I have an opinion and will be the first to admit that mine is influenced by my own personality - analytical and thoughtful (which I'm led to believe does not always equal right!). And so here is my take on the game.

First of all, South Africa appear to have figured out that one can win matches without having the ball. This was evident in the Super 14, where our teams all played a similar game, with the exception of the Cheetahs. I'm sure many will disagree, but I have a feeling that if the matches are analysed technically, it will show that South Africa prefer to let the opposition have the ball, adopt a defensive focus and rely on pressure to force the error. And this has been mighty effective and almost was today - witness Butch James' try from an intercept that was the result of pressure. This is low risk rugby, play with heart and intensity, force the error and then capitalize. I have personally heard it referred to as "Subdue and Penetrate" rugby by one of the great coaches of the modern era. That of course never makes the media...

I don't believe this is a sustainable way to play rugby. For one thing, it's been suggested that rule changes in the future will only make this more difficult to do successfully. But this is after the World Cup, so it's not a factor right now. But the more important reason is that it requires such a high level of intensity and concentration that to do it game after game is nearly impossible. And in the World Cup, we will have to win at least 4 tough games out of 7, and the chances of winning them like this are a concern to me. We will rightly claim that we are the only team who have made New Zealand look ordinary in the last 3 years - they look sloppy at times, rushed and make what seem silly errors, forced as a result of pressure. But we feed off the scraps, and that's not going to build a dynasty any time soon. Again, I'm sure some will disagree.

The final important point that I have to make is that it worries me to see how our players celebrate tries (and victories, as witnessed before today). There is something arrogant about it - a symptom of what I believe is happening off the field, creating a culture of machoism in our teams. I realise that this might be the South African way, but again, I don't believe it's sustainable to play with this level of intensity. And so this probably sounds ridiculous, but I believe that when a player is pumping his fist aggressively as he crosses the line, it's a telling sign of a problem waiting to happen, and that's what we do when we score. It even happened against Samoa, who the Australian second team had disposed of a week earlier.

My thinking on this is greatly influenced by some American Football coaches, who used to discipline players severely for over-celebrating touchdowns. They felt it is a sign that the player is not thinking correctly and is too pumped up. The culture they had distilled in players was that they were to be humble on the field, do the jobs and score the points. And that is what Richie McCaw and Joe Rokocoko did today. South Africa, however, were so fired up that even after scoring a try, South African players ran into a crowd of players and shoved the All Blacks out the way. If you have just scored, then don't get involved in that, it's just not needed. And so it's an attitude difference, which has sadly been typical of South Africa since I can remember - recall the Jannes Labuschane tackle on Wilkinson at Twickenham a few years ago?

So let's get back to winning rugby matches with skill - surgeons with scalpels, not butchers with carving knives.

But that's just me!