Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Idiots Guide to winning the Currie Cup

Like the perfect Ostrich Neck Potjie, the process of winning the Currie Cup, also takes a lot of preparation days before the actual cooking process starts, the precise quantity of carefully selected ingredients, a fool proof step by step process you have to follow and a meticulous and patient cook.

In Free-State rugby this year, we saw just that.

Rassie Erasmus took over as coach this year, with definite goals in mind and a well rehearsed plan on how to achieve it. He spend hours behind closed doors and television screens to develop, what he believed to be, the perfect method, with the specific players he had, to make Cheetah rugby a respected and proud union again. He was patient even after he was laughed at, threatened by his own supporters and written off even before the season started. Sometimes games did not quite turn out the way he wanted, but he stuck to his plan and in the end, he got the perfect result. Rugby is about winning, no matter how pretty, and Rassie reminded everyone about that.

What was personally very pleasing to see, was the fact that with Rassie and his Cheetahs, it was yet again proven that no matter what or who you have playing for you, or who or by how much you are getting sponsored by, rugby, is still a thinking man’s game.

For those of you that are familiar with my posts, you will know that I can get carried away sometimes with small things. I promise though that I will try and keep this to the point. To analyze each game the Cheetahs played this year will be impossible, thus I am only going to highlight certain areas of specific games, and more to the point, the last couple of games the Cheetahs played. More specifically I tried to get inside the coaches head with this post. We all know, and are basically sick and tired of hearing all the time, that rugby is a simple game. I could analyse each player that made a huge impact, but what is left to say about legends like Naka and Os? Are there and superlatives left to describe Juan Smith? Saying Ryno van der Merwe is probably the most underrated player is becoming an overrated statement. And the importance of a brilliant tight 5 and how important it is they gel together is such old news Orakel will probably move my post to the archive section of his blog upon posting it!

A couple of games did stand out though. The first one is the game between the Cheetahs and the Sharks in Bloemfontein in pouring rain. Having played a lot of rugby in the Cape myself I can assure you it is not fun in those conditions. What makes the game in Bloem even worse, is that it was played on a hard field! Three players that stood out in this game was Ryno van der Merwe, Neil Oelschig and Meyer Bosman. Out of the three the latter had a brilliant game as pivot in atrocious conditions, which makes his achievements, even more impressive. He had a hand in both tries and his cool head gave the Cheetahs the edge. Which is why I was not surprised in the least with Jake White picking this youngster for the Boks. But we are not getting into that today.

Forget all the talk about the Sharks and how bad they are, they had a quality team on the day, and if you ask any union, they will tell you in no uncertain terms, that you never write the Sharks off.

Throughout the year it was clear that Rassie had changed the way the Cheetahs play. The forwards laid the foundation, the loosies hunted in a pack, and the backs kept it as close to the forwards as they possibly could. Willem de Waal provided them with brilliant tactical options on attack and defense, and off course, he has a lethal boot and can slot penalties from basically everywhere in the oppositions half.

Now although De Waal did not play in the Sharks game, the execution was exactly the same. They kept things simple and close, and through pressure, the points came.

The one thing Rassie knows, and yes, all coaches say this before big games but no-one enforces it, is that the team that makes the least amount of mistakes, will win the games. Rather than coaching his players to be flash, or scrum their opposition of the park, or off-load in the tackle, or do eye exercises, or any of the other fancy stuff, he coached them to concentrate on the basics. And this is something, all South African teams can learn from because we are seriously lacking in this department.

The game of rugby is played between four lines, and the rules really are very simple, keep as much of the posession as you can and force your opposition to make mistakes by applying loads of pressure. The Cheetahs went into almost every game this season against one of the big unions as the underdogs, and that suited them perfectly.

The greatest defense in rugby, is taking your opponents on in what they perceive to be their strength. You can almost compare it to the great Mohammad Ali’s “rope a dope” technique. He used to dance around, avoid contact as much as he can, for most the fight. In the latter stages of the fight, he came out all guns blazing and completely smashed a tired, frustrated opponent. No I am not suggesting Rassie’s men avoided contact, they simply adapted this technique to suit their own game plan.

Another great example is what John Allen said when Natal were facing WP in the Currie Cup final in 1996 I think it was. WP had a monster front row. In the team meeting leading up to the final, Ian Mac was looking for ways to avoid this obvious strength. John however suggested that they should take them on in this area. As the first scrum was about to pack down, the Natalians were very loose and took a step back or sideways, (can't remember the exact details now - plus I know ver little about frotn row play) this aparently upset the WP quite a bit and if i remember correctly the scrum collapsed. At the next scrum they did precisely the opposite, from this moment WP scrum was nullified and their biggest weapon, eliminated. Natal won that match.

The Cheetahs did the same thing, they attacked their opponents strengths, frustrated them, tired them out and made them doubt their structures and game plan. Fact is, once a well coached team looses structure, they become as ordinary as a club or school team. And this is the point where the Cheetahs usually sneaked through.

They did this in the semi-final against WP, but even more so against the Bulls in the final. Against WP the Cheetahs were tactically and technically better on the day. I believe the teams are very equal when it comes to strengths and weaknesses, but yet again, WP playing at home had everything to loose and Rassie’s men everything to gain. What they had to do was simple, just get the basics right. If WP starts to panic even in the slightest, they will have the game in the bag. And that is exactly what happened. WP were getting extremely worried and frustrated and did some stupid things on the day because of it. And what lost them the game? You guessed it, a mistake in the form of a kick that was charged down. Add to this the fact that the Cheetahs’ execution was much better than WP on the day, Os providing the youngsters on the field with tips and tricks, and the result was obvious.

I guess they expected a bit more from the men in blue and white, everyone did, and I actually believe Rassie and his team would have been surprised at the end how easy this win was, because let’s be honest, the result flatters the mountain goats.

The final was a whole different kettle of fish though. Everyone, and none more so than Rassie himself knows what it is like to play the Bulls in a final, at Loftus, in front of 50,000 hostile supporters. Rassie’s tactical decisions in this game proved to be the clincher, but take nothing away from the guys on the field and the guts they showed to come back the way they did.

Tactically Rassie’s decision to pick so many props was brilliant. Like he rightly mentioned, props do so much more in the game than just scrum, they provide crucial support in the line-out, they have to protect channel one on defense, and they have to handle the ball, carrying it up through phases.

Now if you look at the Bulls team and their strengths, this is exactly where the Cheetahs beat them, in their own game.

The line-out’s was not dominated by the defending champions, their preferred method of attack being the rolling mall through channels 1 was nullified and they were put under pressure at scrum time.

As with any final you could have expected no less from the Bulls than a complete onslaught as we witnessed in the first half an hour. All the Cheetahs had to do is get through this section of the match with minimal damage done on the scoreboard, and they would always be in with a shout. This, they did brilliantly. I think Naka summed it up perfectly saying that it felt like a hurricane hit them and they were just trying to survive, forget scoring any points themselves!

After that it became a typical game of chess. But what the Cheetahs did in the first part of the game was disrupt the usually dependable structures of the Bulls. We saw silly mistakes, like dropping balls over the goal line, which was very uncharateristic of this Bulls team.

The substitutions of the props at various stages of the match ensured Rassie’s men had fresh legs on the field for 80 minutes, to take the Bulls on in their own game, and forced them into a Plan B.

I guess that the first half an hour took quite a bit out of the Cheetah boys which is why, in the second half, the Bulls found the gaps out wide easier. They manage to build what seemed an unassailable lead but then the genius of both coach and captain swung the match.

Naka’s constant reminders to Kaplan about the niggles and constant infringement by the Bulls paid off by the sending off of Brian Habana, this, to everyone involved at the game, was the big turning point.

However, I believe it happened about 10 minutes before that. When the Bulls scored to give them a 25-10 lead, they had the game won. Everyone at Loftus, and I mean everyone, even Rassie and Naka to an extent even believed it, and that is what cost them. I would have loved to have been on the field standing underneath the Cheetah posts when the Bulls took that lead and listened to what was said there.

I would also love to know from who it came from, but whoever it was, and whatever was said, changed the game completely. Arrogance is a very dangerous thing in any sport. And the Bulls, through the help of 50 000 people already opening the Champagne bottles and lighting the victory fires, displayed just that, arrogance. In my view rugby is 30% skill and 70% heart, and what was to follow, was 150% heart, and nothing else.

Maybe nothing was said by any Cheetah player at that stage, maybe they did not need to, the Bulls team and 50 000 supporters said exactly what was necessary. The last 15 minutes was to frantic to try and explain what went right for the boys in white. It would be unfair to blame individuals or single out heroes, because I reckon it was a collective effort that provided us with one of the most memorable ends to Cup finals ever played.

Fact is, when Kaplan blew that final whistle, you saw the culmination of months of hard work, coming together in 80 minutes, and the potjie was ready to be served.

To some it is still unbelievable what Rassie and his boys manage to pull of this year. Why?

To me, the only thing Rassie did, was go back to the basics of the game. The forwards must lay the platform, the flyhalf must keep them on the front foot and out of the danger zones. The backs must defend like demons and take every chance, no matter how small, that comes their way, and wait for the other teams to make the mistakes and capitalize. Simple.

Isn’t it strange, or maybe it isn’t, that this seems to be the game plan for another team we all support? Isn’t it also strange, that the coach of that team is also hailed as a genius at analyzing the game? Isn’t it also strange, that this other coach is also accused of not playing running rugby or rugby with no flair? But most of all isn’t it strange, that both coaches and both teams are playing winning rugby, no matter how they do it or how ugly it is, at the end of 80 minutes, they have more points on the board than their opposition more often than not, which is off-course, what it is all about?

Rassie, like Jake, did not re-invent rugby, or revolutionized their playing style. What they did was actually the opposite, they went backwards, they both concentrated on the aspects of the game we are all taught at school, rather than club or provincial level. They picked up, that our players in general, and for that matter players all over the world, are trying to play the game to make it commercially attractive to supporters, and although it looks pretty when they play, they still loose.

So as supporters of both the Boks and Cheetahs, I suppose we have to ask ourselves what is more important. Playing attractive rugby with lots of flair and skill? Or winning every game no matter how or in what way?

For me its simple really, as a player or supporter, I would much rather look at a Currie Cup or World Cup winners medal, than at a collection of tapes highlighting 29 years of the brilliant tries we scored, and being loved by every other team and supporter for the ‘attractive’ brand of rugby we play.

I was in Cape Town when the Cheetahs were denied the Currie Cup in the last movement of the game. Being a WP supporter, it broke my heart listening to Helgard Muller's speech apologising to Peet Kleinhans in the interview because they were just not good enough.

I never saw Naka's speech after this year's Currie Cup final, I went to the kitchen after the final whistle, poured myself one mean Branna's and Coke, went outside, phoned my friend Wessel in Cape Town (who btw, is a huge Cheetah supporter) who watched that game in Cape Town with me a couple of years ago, and toasted the return of everybody's second best team"but not quite good enough" - Free State Rugby. All this while Wessel was screaming, crying and laughing hysterically in my ears for half an hour.

Welcome back Cheetahs!


got carried away again!
Shyte, me as well- would have loved to have claimed dragons on this one!

Well said, you have done Rassie's band of Orangemen proud, by far the best post on OORB to date.
thanks OO. :)
Great stuff PA!
Needless to say
OO sal weer later gesels, wou net se van Theo....

Was selfde koshuis as hy gewees, altyd gesien as 'n genuine ou wat altyd sy beste gegee het, maar was hy nie ook een van die eerste wat pad gevat het Griekwas toe nie? Baie teleurgesteld in die kerel.

Maar wat, die wiel draai en ons sal weer praat!


Ek wag vir die Pine storie...

I'd be interested to hear you analysis on why the Lions managed to beat the Cheetahs.

Also how come, from a purely technical view, the Lions lost the semi when they'd beaten the Bulls by almost 40 points just a few weeks before, particularly given their fantastic start in Pretoria in the semi.

with the kind permission of OO, i will post something on the lions tomorrow, i did some analysing of that game, for one simple reason. i thought the lions, not the cheetahs would be currie cup champs in 2005 beating WP in the final at newlands.

having watched the business end of the competition more than the initial games, the lions was by far the most dangerous team in SA
What a great post.

You like keeping things nice and short, PA ;-)
You have some really good stories on here, OO.
Thanks Ras

I just need to others like Rasputin & Donner to be occasional posters, I will vamp up the marketing next year, then this blog will be ok.
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