More rugbyballs

Jeremy Gordin tries valiantly to uncast the die.

So Rassie Erasmus (“Rasskele”) has already announced his team for Sunday’s quarter-final against the Brave Blossoms [i] – or “the Boere Blossoms,” as some call them, given the fine performance of inter alios Lappies-san Labuschagne [ii].

I’d have waited until the last possible moment to announce the Bok team – to keep Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown guessing. Joseph and Brown, especially Brown, are the architects of the Brave Blossom’s form and strategies at the minute – and the support of seemingly millions of folk and Japanese pride and conscientiousness have been helpful too.

We musn’t forget that in 2006 Brown played for the Sharks in the Super 14 and Seffrican rugby ways are therefore not foreign to him. Nor should we forget that Joseph was born in Blenheim (NZ) [iii] – which might just be a fluke, or unimportant, but then again it might not. We think we understand how the world works; but, as any rabbi or cosmologist could tell you, we know virtually diddley-squat.

Be all this as it may, the Springbok team is a strong one, and I’d tend to go with the bookies that the Bokke will beat the Blossoms. And yet.

Looking at Rasskele’s team, it seems to me he has done everything I would have suggested that he not do. Although apparently a realistic and sensible coach, it seems Rasskele has, by fielding his usual “A” team, defaulted to the good ol’ Seffrican way of doing things.

The Seffrican way is to soldier on as one always has done and not to think freshly or creatively. Read RW Johnson’s piece on President Cyril Ramaphosa and SAA [iv] or think about what’s happening right now with Eskom [v]. Issues such as these are as obvious – and have been as obvious for months and months – as an express train bearing down on us, and we are all manacled to the railway line; and yet our coach, Ramaphosa, continues hanging out in the caboose while the train thunders on.

But the ol’ Seffrican way is even worse than ignoring the obvious. If Ramaphosa truly had any cojones, he’d fire that bunch of 90% nincompoops comprising his so-called cabinet (more like a minibar in a sleazy hotel) – and put in an A-team, people who can do the job. It wouldn’t matter that they’re not ANC members; they’d have to take an oath agreeing to obey the Constitution. Nor should it matter that many of those that spring to mind are honkies [vi].

But this is not going to happen in government. Nor it seems will it happen with the Springboks. There once was an exception. Remember the late, lamented Kitch Christie, architect of the Springboks’ victory in the 1995 RWC? For the final he famously pulled Mark Andrews out of the lock position and had him play eighth man. It proved, for reasons with which I shall not bore you, to be a very adept move.

Now, I think I understand why Rasskele has stayed where he is most comfortable. Firstly, it’s comfortable. Secondly, he’s been building up a team and training it according to a certain plan for months now; and to change the team and its modus operandi would throw team members into disarray. They are rugby players; this means they can’t “think on their feet,” which seems contradictory, a veritable oxymoron, I know, and yet so it is.

Thirdly, no matter how good your relationship is with “employees,” no matter how much “respect” you have garnered – if Rasskele were to renege, as it were, on the (albeit covert, we hope) promises he has made to team members or understandings he has with them (“You, Faf [de Klerk], are my number one scrum-half,” “You, Eben [Etzebeth], are my number one lock”), Rasskele would cause a great deal of resentment in the squad. And no one likes resentment or confrontation, except perhaps Helen Zille and me, en kyk hoe lyk sy nou.

But sometimes in life, as the shrinks, facilitators and cliché-mongers keep telling us, you must exit your comfort zone, and preferably when it’s the least comfortable moment at which to do so. It’s anxiety-provoking and yes uncomfortable – but it gets the adrenaline flowing, sharpens the wits and builds confidence. You feel as though you can take on anything successfully; and the Boks are going to need that feeling in the final.

So, let’s consider (what some academics call) the topology of the problem.

The Brave Blossoms are small – well, most of them – and they don’t have extraordinary set pieces (scrums and lineouts); in fact, their lineouts are weak. But they make up for those deficiencies by handling beautifully, not kicking the ball away but tenaciously shepherding it and holding onto it, by moving the ball rapidly out to the wings and back again with speed, using inside passes or offloads, and by getting the ball away from rucks very fast (which means their scrum-halves don’t bugger about) – and, above all, by playing with remarkable grit and determination (what sport pundits call “belief”).

In short, the Blossoms play a fast, mobile game, getting away from rucks rapidly, eschewing set-pieces if they can, and trying to keep the ball in play for as long as possible.

Here’s what I would have done. Forwards first. The Boks need fast, mobile forwards who can clean out those rucks quick and hard; rather than bulk and brawn, they need agility and X-factor.

Ergo, start – and this is a weird one, since I don’t even like the guy and his purported bonhomie – start by playing Schalk Brits as hooker. Yes, he’s (relatively) old but he’s cheeky and has X-factor. He can always be taken off after 40 or 60 minutes. Alternatively, I don’t mind Bongi Mbonambi in the position. Start too with Steven Kitshoff in the front row and maybe even without Tendai Mtawarira (put him on the bench) because he’s ponderous.

Put Eben Etzebeth on the bench; play Franco Mostert instead; he’s more mobile. Next – and this is a difficult one, because Siya Kolisi is the captain and the country’s Great Black Hope but then again, unlike all ANC politicians, he knows the team is more important than he is individually – play Kwagga Smith on the flank. I have noticed, however, that maybe Smith hasn’t recovered fully from his hamstring injury. If he doesn’t shape in 15 minutes, take him off and put on Francois Louw, a serious flanker of note. Finally, eighth man: play Malcolm Marx but preface this choice with a few choice words on how he needs to recapture his mojo chop-chop. If he’s in form, he’ll get the ball back fast from the rucks. (Duane Vermeulen can come on after 60.)

Now the backs. One of the worst things that happened to SA rugby happened many years ago in Nelspruit (now quaintly called Mbombela). Faf de Klerk’s mom – I mean no disrespect, mind – told young Faf that he was a brilliant box-kicker. Faf has carried on accordingly and has apparently converted Rasskele to his mom’s view. He also tends to loiter at the base of the scrum or ruck. Sorry, Faf’s got to go. Herschel Jantjies as starting scrum-half – or the game’s lost.

What about fly-half? Handre Pollard is our number one and is getting better all the time – but he’s slow. Had there been world enough and time, as the poet said, Cheslin Kolbe might have been groomed for a game such as this. I’d also have liked to play Damian Willemse in this game – the youngster’s got the goods – but he’s too untried, so Pollard it’ll have to be. Do not play Frans Steyn in a game such as this; now too heavy and slow. Damian de Allende thinks “pass” or “off-load” are tennis terms, but he defends well, so let him be.

Finally, full back. Ja, when Willie le Roux’s on song, he can be, as the sports journalists write, “magic”. But he’s not on song and he’s been frighteningly shaky under the high ball. Warren Galant is a safe pair of hands.

Here then is what would be my starting lineup against the Brave Blossoms:

15 Warren Galant, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Malcolm Marx, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Schalk Brits (captain), 1 Steven Kitshoff. Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frans Malherbe, 18, Tendai Mtawarira 19, RG Snyman, 20 Eben Etzebeth, 21 Siya Kolisi (captain when he comes on), 22 Cobus Reinach, 23 Duane Vermeulen.

Instructions to team: If you’re going to kick, which you should, make sure it goes into touch, numbskull. Keep the ball tight among the forwards. Win.

But the above is all a pipedream, isn’t it? Rasskele’s chosen his team. I just hope the bookies know what they’re doing and that I’ll have to eat my words one-by-one. Meantime, I’ll keep gulping down the Prozac.


[i] Sport24.

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn.

[ii] Remember too, if you will, that Labuschagne and Van der Walt are traditional names from Japan’s Edo dynasty. Some of their descendants set for SA at some point, though their journeys are not well documented.

[iii] Blenheim was where the Duke Marlborough thumped his enemies, pausing for a moment to scribble on the back of an old tavern bill a note addressed to his wife, Sarah: “I have no time to say more but to beg [that] you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory”. If the Blossoms are victorious on Sunday, I can easily imagine Joseph sending a similar sort of note to the Japanese Emperor, though whether in this era of emails, he’d use an old pub invoice is another matter.

[iv] /opinion/saa-cyrils-pie-in-the-sky

[v] ... as a result of which, by the way, some of us might well miss some of the quarter-finals, unless we sally forth to a sports tavern somewhere, where we might be tempted by all sorts of dangerous phenomena such as alcohol, tobacco, dancing, shouting and people as equally opinionated as oneself.

[vi] Off the top of my head here’re just a few: Judge Robert Nugent for Minister of Justice, Mark Barnes as Minister of Small Business Development (though he shouldn’t try to start a bank), Anton Harber as Minister of Communications, Adrian Gore as Minister of Health (though he’d have to quit his day job), Helen Zille as Minister of International Relations (though no tweeting), Glynnis Rautenbach as Minister of Police, me as Minister of Home Affairs (oooh, would I scour that Augean stable), and so on.