Criticism of the standard of play in the Currie Cup is valid but in these crazy Covid times, the players must be cut some slack for not producing the spectacle we all want the game in South Africa to be.
Former Springbok and Italian coach Nick Mallett and former Lions coach and Springboks assistant coach Swys de Bruin were frank and to the point in their observations of the South African rugby’s first ever Currie Cup competition played over summer and played behind closed doors.
The experienced duo were speaking on SuperSport’s Final Whistle programme and Mallett said the standard of the Currie Cup and Super Rugby Unlocked was not up to the standard of New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa.
This in itself has to be put in context and I don’t believe it is an ‘apples versus apples’ comparison.
New Zealand restarted their Super Rugby competition, which was followed by six All Blacks Test matches, in the New Zealand winter, which traditionally is when the players have always played. So there was no summer adjustment to be made. The players were also fortunate to play in front of supporters and in many instances near capacity or in front of a sold-out audience.
There was minimal Covid related interruption in the country when it came to the domestic Super Rugby season, with the champion Crusaders visit to Eden Park to play the Blues in the final round the one big match to be called off because of Covid restrictions. The Crusaders had already clinched the title.
New Zealand’s style of play was consistent with what their players produce in every Super Rugby competition. Their approach was nothing out of the ordinary.
South Africa’s provincial teams have played with the uncertainty of whether their matches would take place, and several have been called off at the last minute. The Lions home match against the Cheetahs was cancelled on the the Saturday morning. This has to mess with the minds of the players and coaching staff. The Stormers/WP matches in Super Rugby Unlocked and in the Currie Cup against the Sharks were both cancelled because of positive squad Covid Tests
Playing in the heart of summer, and what is traditionally the Christmas break, is also foreign to the South African players and it is a factor when it comes to the appetite and mental fortitude of the players and coaches.
Some would say it is no excuse and that it is their profession and they simply have to front. In theory, most definitely, but practically most definitely not that obvious or that easy.
Western Province hosted a Currie Cup match on Saturday, the 26th December, on a very hot afternoon, with no one at the ground. Mentally, how do you get up for a match a day after a summer Christmas when it has never happened in the 100-plus year history of the competition?
I am not for a moment disagreeing with Mallett or De Bruin’s criticism that Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup were a painful watch, regardless of who was playing.
But I just got the feeling every time I watched a match that the players simply wanted to get the 80 minutes out of the way and tick off another contractual obligation completed for the broadcasters.
It was a case of meeting an obligation and, as much as they know they have to entertain, this was more a case of getting through the 80 minutes.
Cut them some slack for what we’ve just seen.
The South African Super Rugby quartet, who will play in this year’s inaugural northern hemisphere Rainbow Cup, will know they will have to add a dimension to their game strategy and approach to be successful.
And they will be capable of doing so, just as the Springboks were able to transform their approach from the dour semi-final World Cup win against Wales to the dazzling World Cup final triumph over England a week later.
South Africa’s rugby players are capable of playing the game with a ball in hand expression similar to the Kiwis, and they’ve shown it enough times in the past.
What we’ve witnessed as a collective in the 2020/21 Currie Cup is an exception and not the rule.
For those who missed what Mallet and De Bruin had to say, Mallett’s comments are below.
‘It’s difficult not to be a little bit negative on the performances of our teams quite frankly. If you compare it with the way New Zealand cracked in with their Aotearoa competition, with teams really embracing the quick-ruck ball and ball in hand [style] they were reasonably high-scoring games, but the defences were excellent and their attacks were great. It was rugby that was worth watching.
‘When we started there was obviously issues with our fitness and conditioning. There were a lot of error-ridden games early on. Then it appeared that every single team that got into a tight situation just resorted to World Cup-final tactics which basically means driving mauls, pushing scrums for penalties and kicking an up-and-under from No 9 or 10 the entire game.
‘If you’re waiting for other people to make a mistake … it’s like watching us playing Wales in the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup which was not a good spectacle, it was great that South Africa won, but it wasn’t a good rugby spectacle for viewers. And we have to remember that we are in the entertainment business in rugby and we need to entertain people. And people get entertained by watching tries being scored through good passing, good lines of running, timing and good stepping.
‘To see a [Cheslin] Kolbe score a try is worth sitting there for an hour and a half in an afternoon. But if I’ve got to watch up-and-unders and driving mauls all day … and collapsed scrums and penalties … I’m not excited by that product.’
De Bruin said there was a worrying trend of actual ball-in-play time in SA’s domestic matches. Or more accurately, a lack of ball-in-play.
‘It’s almost like a storybook now,’ De Bruin said. ‘I can see there’s a scrum that will reset and reset again, then the advantage will come, then the next chapter is the penalty. From there the maul starts.
‘Before the maul there’s a little meeting with the forwards that eats up more time. After that meeting the lineout starts, but before the lineout starts the refs walk up and down through the lineout first. Eventually when the lineout starts the real thing starts, what’s going to happen now, who’s going to join, who’s going to sack and lift legs.
‘For me that’s become almost the story. In Super Rugby, in 2017 and 2018 we had 35 minutes of continuing play on average. We aimed for 40, if we got 35 or 36 we were happy. I spoke to one of the analysts and in the Currie Cup they’re hitting 24, 25, 26 [minutes]. So, out of 80 minutes, you see 25 minutes of rugby and that’s a problem.’
I concur with Mallett and De Bruin, but I know it will improve, sooner rather than later, and for me the victory is simply that we managed to complete a Super South African Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup competition in this daunting and challenging times.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images