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  • Things We Learned: Currie Cup Semi-Finals

    1) The Lions scrum doesn't mess around. Ever. 2) Western Province will need to up their game. 3) The Sharks need to build a new group of senior players. 4) The Bulls must really stop wasting Handre Pollard. 5) Providing all the match officials for a Bledisloe Cup test might be too much of a strain on South African refereeing depth.


    1. The Lions scrum doesn't mess around. Ever.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s when the starting pack is out there or if it’s after the replacements have come on. The likes of Schalk van der Merwe, Ruan Dreyer and Julian Redelinghuys were so dominant, it got to the stage that the Lions didn’t even seem disappointed when they knocked the ball on.

    The Sharks had Thomas du Toit at loosehead, a young prop that has shown incredible promise at the Sharks this year. He spent his Saturday getting a tough education. They also picked Matt Stevens, a man who was a part of the British and Irish Lions squad last year. They might as well have picked a wheelie bin.

    Kyle Cooper also started throwing his line-outs skew. No prizes for guessing what Lions captain Warren Whitely kept choosing every scrum or line-out option.

    It provided the Lions with all the front foot ball they could dream of and more. Their talented players cashed in on it. And more.

    It's a team with threats in every department, and if they have a scrum that dominates like that, they will kill their opponents in every department.

    So, none of the Lions props are Springboks, right? Just checking.

    2. Western Province will need to up their game.

    After the gauntlet had been so dramatically thrown by the Lions in the first semi-final, Western Province could only respond with a spluttering rendition of ‘A win is a win’.

    Sure, there were some sparks offered up by the likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Seabelo Senatla that lit up an underwhelming game. Hell, give those two the ball with some space and they’ll light up any game. You get the feeling they better cash in on any ball they get against the Lions because they might not get too much.

    Nizaam Carr’s injury put a bit of a downer in the Province camp’s victory celebrations too. With their depth at loose forward getting tested, a Nizaam Carr injury must be right at the top of the Things Western Province Don’t Need list.

    While it wasn't the most fluid of victories, Western Province were in control on the scoreboard throughout and a semi-final is an environment where there is no need to look beyond what needs to be done.

    It’s just that against the Lions, a whole lot more will need to be done.

    3. The Sharks need to build a new group of senior players.

    The core group of Sharks experience used to be their strength when it came to the business end of the Currie Cup in recent years. Now it looks like a weakness that needs addressing, especially if resting Springboks throughout the tournament is going to be the norm from now on.

    Oh, how they must’ve yearned for having a pack with the full Springbok front row in it like they were able to have this time last year...

    Elsewhere, while Tera Mtembu looks to have had a fine first season as captain from number 8 (and it must have been trying amidst the Jake White situation), there are other key positions in the spine of the team where more composure needs to be shown.

    Conrad Hoffmann had a big challenge at scrumhalf behind a pack going backwards, and it was a challenge that he didn’t really meet. Lionel Cronje lived up to his CV, which says he’s a flyhalf who has been given a run at all five of the major unions in South Africa yet hasn’t really kicked on at any of them.

    While SP Marais brings a touch of class in his play, there does seem to be a lot of moaning coming from him when times get tough. It’s not a good look.

    2014 started with optimism all around the defending champions. Now it just seems like a year that the union just can’t wait to be over and done with.

    4. The Bulls must really stop wasting Handre Pollard.

    What was going through Frans Ludeke’s head when he decided not to choose Handre Pollard as his pivot? “Yes, he’s proven himself as a class flyhalf against the All Blacks, but in a Currie Cup semi-final? No, playing flyhalf in that game is a lot of responsibility.”

    Just to exacerbate things, inside Pollard’s centre channel, scrumhalf Rudy Paige and flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter kicked as if they had no idea that one of the most promising talents in world rugby was standing outside them.

    If experience was the tipping point in the Potgieter selection, then that just totally backfired. All he brought was a slew of missed penalties, the odd shanked drop kick and an indulgence of pointless kicks to a threatening back three.

    For a union that has spent so much energy in bringing in all the top young South African talent, it’s time that the talent was backed properly.

    5. Providing all the match officials for a Bledisloe Cup test might be too much of a strain on South African refereeing depth.

    Craig Joubert refereed a test in Brisbane with two South African touch judges and a South African TMO. Any one of those four seemed sorely missed on the weekend of the Currie Cup semi-finals.

    For the first semi-final, it’s hard to criticise the performance of Jaco van Heerden. For the second semi-final, it’s hard to stop criticising the performance of Pro Legoete.

    Legoete looked indecisive throughout. Scrum penalties were plentiful and they all looked like guesswork. Awarding a penalty against Grant Hattingh for his ‘challenge’ on Nic Groom in the air was just a tragic moment for rugby in general (and to think the TMO agreed with that decision).

    Come on, IRB. Just stick Romain Poite on the touchline for a Bledisloe Cup game. What’s the worst that can happen?


  • #ProteaFire: Much more than just marketing

    It's more than just a hashtag.


    It’s more than just a hashtag. It’s an identity and a culture created by the national cricketers themselves that’s being shared with the nation.

    It's based on a symbolism around the national flower and its relationship with fire. The Protea is characteristic for not only being able to survive fire, but actually uses it to regenerate. It’s this nature which has been embraced by the cricketers to form the core of their team mantra and playing culture.

    As imagery goes, there are plenty of correlations that the players can draw on of what constitutes their own fire that they need to strive in. Difficult playing conditions, impossible match situations, public pressure, inner passion...the scope for poetic symbolism seems endless.

    At the official #ProteaFire launch, former captain Graeme Smith spoke of how the idea of finding a common team identity and inspiration germinated in his head after the team’s World Cup semi-final exit in 2007. Then the concept developed and grew from a team camp conducted in 2010. Now, in the build-up to next year’s World Cup, the current team captains have shown that #ProteaFire has fully flowered.

    Apart from being an internal concept that forms a common identity and passion amongst a team that has had to adapt to its own diversity, the players are at pains to point out that this spirit is inclusive to all South Africans.

    For a start, the team speaks of how they get their inner inspiration from the population itself. Playing for the South African people is what fuels a fire inside them. It’s the strength they draw on when they spend so much of their time overseas and it’s what they love the most when they are playing at home. It’s a team manifestation of ubuntu.

    Also, it entrenches an identity for the national symbol itself and makes it more relatable to the public. While it’s always been the national flower, its relationship to the public as a sporting symbol hasn’t seemed to be much more than a symbol of reconciliation.

    Now, the special qualities of the flower have been embraced and given a sporting context that can be used as a source of inspiration for all South Africans.

    The Proteas players have given many examples of inner strength and heroic cricketing deeds, mainly in test matches in the last five years. To name a few, they include Hashim Amla’s triple century at the Oval in 2012, the marathon match-saving innings from Faf du Plessis in Adelaide that same year, JP Duminy’s fairytale century that turned the test at the MCG in 2009, a variety of flat deck 5-wicket hauls for Dale Steyn and the latest great test escape in Colombo 2014. This current group of Proteas have given more than their fair share of great moments in adversity to back up their ideas around #ProteaFire.

    It even goes beyond the idea of winning, or even saving the match. For instance, at the official launch, so much focus was put on a #ProteaFire moment that occurred in a test match that South Africa actually lost.

    It was a moment that happened during the historic test series win in Australia in the 2008/09 season, which gave many great examples of #ProteaFire. One was given far more focus than any other.

    Which one was it? How they successfully chased a target of 414 in the fourth innings in Perth? Nope. JP Duminy’s century in Melbourne? Nope. Dale Steyn’s match haul of 10 wickets in the same test? Nope.

    Instead, they chose the example of Graeme Smith walking out to bat with a broken hand in the final test in Sydney, a match that the Proteas fell 11 balls short of saving.

    While the aim of playing cricket is to win, the sport can still throw up heroic moments when you don’t. You get the feeling that if the team can correctly harness this spirit in their preparation and skill execution, the results will take care of themselves.

    The #ProteaFire launch is all a part of what will be a hopeful crescendo at the World Cup, a tournament that has provided a serious amount of historical fire for South Africans. If you are a fan that is all-consumed by the ‘choke’ word, you might even view this campaign as an attempt at being a psychological anti-choke mechanism. After all, how can you not equate symbolic fire with pressure situations in World Cup ODIs?

    Maybe, instead of crumbling in the World Cup pressure situations like the team has in the past, this mantra can help them accept the fire of the pressure, help them think clearly through them and put them in a better position to navigate their way through them.

    #ProteaFire is a wonderful initiative shown by a generation of players that’s far more than a hashtag, a TV ad and a bunch of what will no doubt be a seemingly endless stream of promos. It’s a common identity that a diverse cricket team has strived for, it’s a passion that they’ve shared with the whole country and could serve as an inspiration for other South Africans to flower amidst their own life’s fires.


  • Things We Learned: Springboks vs New Zealand

    1) The Springboks can beat the All Blacks. 2) The running game is up and...well, running. 3) The Springboks have to work on keeping it up for 80 minutes. 4) There are questions, but it's not overly depressing for the All Blacks. 5) The big screen/home crowd combination is key these days.


    1. The Springboks can beat the All Blacks.

    Sometimes, the most important lessons are the simplest ones.

    Everyone will bang on about the psychological significance of Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks getting that first win over the All Blacks before the World Cup (and rightly so). Everyone will start sentences with “Yes, the All Blacks won the Rugby Championship, but...” as they stress the importance of overcoming that hurdle before 2015. “Now the Springboks know they can beat them for the big one next year” and all that stuff.

    However, let’s just take a moment of living in the now. Ignore winning the World Cup for a moment. Let’s even ignore winning the Rugby Championship. Let’s take a moment to treat this game just for what it is: a win in a classic game against the All Blacks.

    After all, it’s just a beautiful thing in itself away from the context of the tournament it was in and away from the context of a 4-year World Cup cycle. Rugby on its purist level of respect and appreciation is all about enjoying classic games, and it won’t get better than when the top two sides in the world have provided one. Winning it is an added privilege to be savoured.

    Now the Springbok players have got the scalp they were desperate for. They must take the time to enjoy and maximise their good feeling now so that it becomes all the more memorable for them to fight for getting it again in the future.

    2. The running game is truly up and...well, running.

    One could see the shift to the Springboks keeping the ball in hand more in the previous test against the Wallabies. This test, especially in the first half, we saw some better execution while they were in possession and proved that on some days, the Springboks will not only compete with the All Blacks when it comes to running the ball, they’ll even sometimes beat them.

    In the first half, the lack of Springbok kicking was conspicuous. They only made 6 kicks in open play in the whole half. Not one of them was a box kick and not one of them was an up and under. Heyneke, who are you and what have you done to the Springboks?

    Handre Pollard kicked once in that period (a clearance from his try line). That means that in the first half, the Springbok flyhalf literally scored more tries than he kicked the ball in open play.

    In fact, the first Springbok kick in the whole game ended up showing why the Springboks can approach this new game of theirs with confidence. It originated from a grubber kick by the All Blacks that turned over possession in the Springbok 22. Then the Springboks ran it out, put in a well-weighted grubber kick and it resulted in the opening try.

    The description of that try is familiar to the history of this fixture, but only if you swap the two team names around.

    As for the second try, it showed how the Springboks can compete when it comes to attacking off first phase. New Zealand attacked off their own scrum from halfway, threw a (rare) inaccurate pass, and it became a Springbok line-out on halfway. The Springboks spread it wide from the first phase, broke the line and a couple of phases later, Pollard was dancing through All Black tight forwards from the inevitable ‘backs on forwards’ mismatch.

    There was even an attacking penalty near the corner where the Springboks opted for the quick tap, not even the rolling maul. Again, Heyneke, who are you and what have you done to the Springboks?

    Sure, conditions for this type of game won’t get more favourable than at Ellis Park and it certainly won’t be too similar at the World Cup in England next year. If you put this fixture in a rainy day at Twickenham right now, the Springboks will have to show off more skills to pull off a balanced, attacking game. But hey, the more you try it, the better you’ll get at it.

    3. The Springboks have to work on keeping it up for 80 minutes.

    Okay, if we’re going to be picky...

    Take away the Patrick Lambie heroics, and the Springbok second half throws up many questions to ponder once everyone is sober.

    For a start, it was clear that after half-time and with an 8-point lead, the Springboks were putting more stress on territory rather than possession. As stated above, there were 6 kicks in the whole opening 40 minutes. The Springboks matched that number within 12 minutes of the second half (with a box kick and an up and under chucked in, and they certainly weren’t all relieving kicks from the Springbok 22).

    Why did the Springboks want to ‘play’ less? It was possibly a fitness issue (and an awareness that there are 80 minutes for them to last out there). It could also be a ‘well, now we have a bit of a lead to sit on’ issue.

    When it comes to fitness, it’s been well documented and publicised. More running is being implemented to the Springbok play and that asks different fitness questions than what the players have been asked before for test and domestic rugby.

    Hopefully that’ll develop for them to keep up their running game for longer (while also bearing in mind that the Highveld altitude hardly helps). Also, hopefully it’ll develop to the stage when it doesn’t have to be discussed so much and then it'll be further from the forefront of the players' minds. After all, you’re always far more tired when someone reminds you that you are.

    When it comes to ‘sitting on a lead’, well, you have to be careful when going about pinning the All Blacks in their own half, because they can be threatening from just about anywhere on the field. One thing we do know for sure is that the All Blacks can’t score if they don’t have the ball, and the Springboks have shown that they are better at retaining possession than they’ve led themselves to believe in the past.

    While South Africans are entitled to bask in a classic win, it must be kept in mind that they were one dodgy Liam Messam tackle away from their whole match approach not being enough to win.

    4. There are questions, but it’s not overly depressing for the All Blacks.

    It takes two to tango, and boy did the All Blacks dance.

    They scored some wonderful tries, they exerted some serious pressure and a classic comeback tale was very nearly complete.

    Some players showed true class throughout. For instance, let’s ignore the Jonah Lomu vs Julian Savea debate for a second and just marvel at just how much of an attacking threat Savea is currently.

    Some of their players fell short in their one-on-one matchups on the day and that will concern them. For instance, Beauden Barrett was totally outshone by his opposite number. That will be disappointing, but they will take solace in the confidence that Barrett still has serious class. It also has to be kept in context that Barrett is in fact their third choice flyhalf.

    The loss will sting, but New Zealand will come back even stronger. They always do. Shoot, judging by the post-match interview, Richie McCaw was obviously disappointed, but he still couldn’t get that gracious smile off his face. He’s played enough games to know that his team put in a top performance.

    They’ve got stuff to think about, but they are still very confident in their own ability, and rightly so.

    5. The big screen/home crowd combination is key these days.

    Yes, everyone will give the plaudits to Duane Vermeulen playing through injury and all his superhuman effort, but giving him the man of the match award was an overly sentimental decision. The undoubted man of the match was the SuperSport producer that put up the replay of the dodgy Messam tackle as soon as possible.

    It looked like an innocuous incident at the time and play continued on for 4 phases more. As soon as play went dead though, up came the zoomed up version of events in slow motion on television screens in homes around the world and, infinitely more importantly, on the big screen at Ellis Park.

    Then the home crowd sealed the deal, as they should. While home crowds have been influencing referees for years, in the age of big screens and TMO referrals, we are in a boom period of home crowds being handed obvious moments for them to point out incidents that should be penalised.

    When an incident that should result in a Springbok penalty comes up on the big screen, the home crowd has to do all they can in pointing it out to the referee. It’s a national duty.

    Thank you to the mystery SuperSport producer for making the heroic Lambie moment possible. Your country salutes you.


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