Sport – especially popular sport – has always been susceptible to its fair share of creative PR and spin-doctoring, so it comes as no surprise that the pressure of this year’s Rugby Championship led to some poetic licence in the way coaches represented themselves and their teams.
Rugby journalists tend to receive a steady diet of “facts”, statistics and obfuscation from coaches and players in the regular course of their duties; and filters, a fair degree of cynicism and good old fashioned fact-checking are all necessary in making sense of it all.
Steve Hansen (New Zealand), Robbie Deans (Australia) and our very own Heyneke Meyer have been the coaches under pressure in this year’s Rugby Championship (Argentina’s Santiago Phelan has had immunity because of his team’s new boy status) and all of them have had their moments of spreading disinformation and spin.
Following the Springboks’ convincing victory over the Wallabies last weekend, Deans is probably the coach whose head is closest to the chopping block. Being a Kiwi certainly doesn’t help in Australia.
The former All Blacks fullback tries to add extra gravitas to his press conference utterings by speaking slowly and staring intently. The fact that he is the most successful SuperRugby coach ever, steering the Canterbury Crusaders to five titles between 2000 and 2008, and is generally a pleasant bloke to chat to, means that the magnifying glass of closer scrutiny is not always applied to what he has to say.
One of the surest signs someone is feeling the pressure is when they try something smart or out of the ordinary. It’s a classic Heyneke Meyer principle that rugby is a simple game and as soon as the opposition gets you to deviate from your normal game plan or strengths, they have the advantage over you.
It was a tell-tale sign of strain when Deans, a thoroughly decent bloke, used a sneak move involving his front row at Loftus Versfeld that would ultimately lead to his team finishing the match with 14 men.
Benn Robinson, arguably the best loosehead prop in the world, was surprisingly substituted after just 30 minutes on Saturday, with Deans later confirming that it was a “strategic move”.
He was replaced by James Slipper, but it was inevitable that Robinson would return, with either Slipper or Ben Alexander “developing” an injury in the second half.
Sure enough, Alexander hobbled from the field in the 67th minute with a fresh Robinson returning.
But the cunning plan backfired on the Wallabies because, in a game that saw them suffer a freakish number of injuries, Robinson’s return was the seventh substitution and the maximum allowed, so when hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau needed to be replaced due to genuine injury, they couldn’t and had to make do with 14 men.
After the game, Deans sallied forth into a tale of woe about their injuries, claiming they only had 12 men standing in the latter stages of the game and fired a salvo at the fourth referee, who he blamed for not allowing Polota-Nau to be replaced after initially saying he could be.
Deans also claimed that Robinson’s trips to and from the bench were “totally irrelevant” to the situation, which was disingenuous in the extreme.
Hansen was promoted from forwards coach to replace Sir Graham Henry as the All Blacks head coach after their World Cup triumph and he has had some difficulties of his own in satisfying the demanding New Zealand rugby public.
While most observers would agree the All Blacks have been some way off their best until last weekend in Argentina, Hansen has been extolling their dominance and brilliance after every game, including the Dunedin match against the Springboks which even had the home media giving most of the praise to the South Africans.
As far as Meyer goes, he is not afraid to engage with the media, and there have been some memorable technical discussions where he has allowed his passion for the game to overflow – and he has given an impromptu coaching session to journalists! There is a memorable photograph on a reporter’s cellphone of Springbok media manager De Jongh Borchardt lying on the ground with a bunch of media guides doubling as the ball and Meyer bent over him demonstrating the correct ball-stealing technique at a ruck.
And if you ask Meyer why he has chosen Arno Botha ahead of Keegan Daniel, he will give a detailed, reasoned response.
It is all rather refreshing because his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, was always very reluctant to talk about technical matters or even to explain selections beyond “He’s the guy I think we want to go with this week”.
De Villiers has not been so chicken to speak about where he believes Meyer is going wrong.
Meyer treats rugby as a science and is extremely statistics-driven. While it may seem robotic and liable to inhibit flair and experimentation, it does ensure that the coach is not led on flights of fancy by his perceptions or emotions.
Statistics can reveal some fascinating insights. I was intrigued on Tuesday when kicking coach Louis Koen said Morne Steyn averages a 78% success rate when kicking at goal in Tests and the only year he has been above 80% was during his annus mirabilis in 2010 when he was at 90%.
Facts are sometimes forgotten in the mists of time, though, and I do get mildly irritated when Meyer insists on saying Jannie du Plessis is the only member of the World Cup pack still playing. Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Tendai Mtawarira and CJ van der Linde were all also in New Zealand, although the tighthead prop was the only one who started the infamous quarterfinal defeat to Australia.
It would probably help considerably if South African rugby fans could begin to watch games with a more analytical eye rather than just blind emotion. How many fans have picked up that the Springboks have kicked less than their opposition in every Rugby Championship game this year?
Who would the public say had the greater impact in the weekend hammering of the Wallabies – Zane Kirchner or Pat Lambie?
One should hastily add that the media also needs to lift their reporting to new levels, with astonishing numbers attributing Saturday’s win to “a new game plan”. DM
Ken Borland hails from the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal and was educated in the Midlands before going to Joburg in 2004. For a small fee, he'll write or talk about anything and has been a contributor for Reuters, SuperSport, the BBC, various other radio stations around the world, and Midi Olympique. He has covered rugby and cricket World Cups and, even though his own game is a disgrace, numerous golf tournaments. In fact, he took up writing when it became clear he was not going to be actually playing in the big stadiums, no matter how keen he was! When he's not around a sports field somewhere, Ken is invariably in the bush, birdwatching, although the sea and its conchological riches also fascinate him. He is a keen follower of music and movies.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle