Aug

30

 The IRB Rugby World Cup, the greatest venue for the sport, begins in eight days. I am rooting for the USA Eagles, but my favorite team is the South Africa Springboks, a team with absolutely no flair or tactical nuance in their game. Their "strategy" has been described pejoratively as "subdue and penetrate." They are the most physically aggressive side in any sport I have ever seen — and have been that way for a century. They fight you, they tackle you to oblivion, they run over you, but they rarely (defined as "no more than any other team" since rugby is incredibly violent) play dirty.

Of the sports I have played, rugby most reminds me of the game of life. It is a constant grind and struggle. Physical, mental, and emotional pain are around every corner. I was once blindsided on the side of the face during a match, which both hurt physically and offended my sense of fairness. But you have to focus and hope your teammates can kindly point out the transgressor for suitable retaliation. There is simply no time to become offended or to take things personally. It is too fast a game for that, and diverting your attention to a petty offense dramatically reduces your effectiveness.

You must communicate with your teammates constantly, you must defend them when they are punched, gouged, and cleated at the bottom of a ruck. You cannot be intimidated by foul play or hostile words, or become frustrated when someone bumps into you after the official stops play. It's all gamesmanship.

At the end of the game, all is forgiven. Everyone understands that temperaments during conflict become warped. The person who punched me later walked up to me, bought me a beer, and apologized with sincerity. It's a great sport, filled with incredibly tough and skillful athletes, and a joy to watch.

Ian Brakspear adds:

Rugby is the ultimate in physical challenge. I played for the national team in Rhodesia, then played for five years in South Africa, including two years in one of the hardest competitions in the world, the Currie Cup.

There is a position in the game for everyone, no matter what his physique, size or speed. Back-line players require a lot of speed, especially the wings; fullbacks and fly-halves must be good under the high ball, good in defense and be able to counterattack from turnovers — thus the need to think and size up the game in a split-second as well as the ability to kick the ball prodigious distances.

Tight-forwards come in all shapes and sizes but must be physically strong both with ball in hand, on defense and in the ruck and maul. The front row are usually short and very stocky and are some of the heaviest men on the field and the locks are always tall (at least 6'6")and well-built.

Loose-forwards' physical requirements are somewhere between the backs and the tight five; they lack the speed of the backs and yet are faster than the tight five but not as big or heavy –- their tackle count in the game must be higher than any other player's on the field to be considered effective for their position. Some countries play with a genuine fetcher (for instance, New Zealand's Richie McCaw) but others don't.

Today's games are won on defense, yet the only team to have won the World Cup twice, the Australians, won with their attacking play.

As for the Springboks' (South Africa) chances, I hope we win, but we lack a quality fly-halve, don't have a genuine fetcher in the loose-forwards playing in our "A" side, our rush defense from set-pieces is stale now and teams have figured out ways to beat this. We lack the ability to score from set-pieces and are forced to include some third-rate players — those our government refers to as the "previously disadvantaged." But in our favor we have the best lineout forwards in the world, our defense lines are amongst the best in second phase play, and we can score tries from broken play.

The coach of South Africa, Jake White, is a good friend and was my training partner for a long time. But Jake lacks that "something special" to win this, the fourth most viewed sporting event in the world, as he has never played rugby at a high level, not even club rugby, after winning the Tri-Nations in his first year, 2004 — his winning percentages have gone down every year since. Jake and I have had many late-night debates about strategy and tactics.


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1 Comment so far

  1. dale on September 14, 2007 1:08 pm

    i reakon all blacks r the best team i hope they win the world cup go ed !! all blacks all the way

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