Please no dodgy bookkeeping from the Boks

Jeremy Gordin says it is one thing for the ANC to do it, quite another when it comes to this national sport

If you’ve read Andrew Donaldson’s wonderful article, “You can’t beat the Zuckerbots”, you won’t be at all surprised to hear that my search on the Internet for the slang definition of “Chinese bookkeeping” was fruitless.

Perplexed by this, I WhatsApped my comrade in the FGKPD (The Fishcake Gordin-Kropotkin Parkview Decembrists), asking whether s/he recalled what the phrase means – or used to mean. S/he replied: “AFAIK it means keeping one set of books for yourself and one for the Receiver”.

Afkak” I know a little about but not about AFAIK. Thinking my comrade might have encrypted his message, I used the FGKPD code book, still got nowhere, and was forced to request an explanation. It means, s/he explained, “As far as I know”.

Clearly, ILTR, I’m (still) learning the ropes. Clearly, also, the phrase “Chinese bookkeeping” has fallen out of favour – and is now probably considered discriminatory, racist, and so on, especially in a country that is a member of BRICS.

At any rate, in addition to the definition offered by my comrade, I (my dementia not yet being full-blown) recall that the phrase also means espousing not only numbers but also explanations that are misleading because they are at odds with reality and fact. E.g.: “His explanation was an exercise in Chinese bookkeeping”.

Now then, I’m rather concerned that Chinese bookkeeping (no offence intended to teletubby Xi Jinping [i] or anyone else) is apparently flourishing in the beloved country and among its peoples – and, moreover, in an area of our national life that has so far held up well, notwithstanding the multifarious pressures we Seffricans are under.

Actually, given that it is an area which is particularly close to the hearts of a much maligned and oppressed minority in this country, and in which they play, and have always played, a major role, this is deeply concerning.

Let me be plainer. If I hear that a dog bit a man, I am unsurprised. Similarly, if I hear ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe explain that the ANC is well-resourced despite being unable to pay staff salaries, I am not surprised. As Mabe said, if you have R10 but staff salaries amount to R30, you may not be able to pay those salaries, but you’re not without resources for, say, local elections – you still have the R10 after all.

Yet again, if I hear Mabe explain that the ANC is a “serious” [sic] organisation and that, as proof of this, transport minister Fikile “fixfokkol” Mbalula is its chief election strategist and has a really fantastic plan, I remain unsurprised.

But if read (and see) that Chinese bookkeeping has crept into our national sport, I grow distressed and wonder why, for example, leader of the Freedom Front Plus Pieter Groenewald or even the DA’s Helen Zille have not spoken out. You might respond that rugby is merely a sport – but I ask you: what else in this benighted country actually “works” and what other activity or occurrence has in the past lifted us, albeit briefly, from the morass in which we are drowning?

This brings me, sadly, to Jacques Nienaber, seemingly a nice guy and currently head coach of the Seffrican national rugby team, the Springboks (the Boks). Playing second fiddle is not huge fun, we all know that, but now that so-called director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has been hoist with his own petard (bangled by his own infamous video [ii]) and therefore left at home in SA “lest he prove to be a distraction,” Jacquie-boy is out in Australia on his own, calling the shots. Good for him! I’m right behind him, as it were.

Yet consider. Rugby is a sport in which, indubitably, some of the points come from converting a try (two points) or kicking a penalty (three points). It is also common cause that in the so-called modern era – in which refs are tough on so-called dangerous play and on certain technical infringements (which no one really understands, especially when it comes to the scrums [iii]) – there will be many penalties awarded, especially during test matches.

Last Sunday, the Wallabies, a young team trying to find its feet, etc., etc., beat the world champions, the Bokke, 28-26. So it goes. There are all sorts of obvious reasons for why the Boks lost – with which I shall not bore you.

What is not in contention, however, is that Bok kicker Handre Pollard (a flyhalf) and Damian Willemse, who replaced him towards the end of the game, “left” (as they say) 10 points on the field. Pollard missed two penalties and a conversion, Willemse a conversion.

What is also not in contention is that each team is allowed eight replacements during the game (the guys “on the bench”). The “split” (as it’s known) on the bench is generally five forward and three backline players.

This is because forwards are heavier and tire more easily and also there are a number of key forward positions (hooker, props, and locks) that must be replaced if someone is injured during the game; a team can’t operate effectively without someone competent in those positions. A team also needs a replacement scrum-half, also a key position, and also a replacement fly-half and full-back, on the bench.

Increasingly, however, international coaches have sought to cover the fly-half and full-back positions on the bench by having what’s known as a “utility backline player,” someone who can play several backline positions competently – and if he can’t play, say, fly-half so well, he can at least slot in at, say, centre and one of the other backline players can move to play fly-half.

Now then, flowing from Erasmus’ winning world cup strategy [iv], the Boks like to have their famous “bomb squad” on the bench. It’s the Boks’ not-so-secret-anymore trump card. Usually the squad consists of four, maybe even five, forwards (two props, a hooker, a lock, and a loose forward) who were easily good enough to have started the game – some are perhaps even “better” than those who started the game – and who are brought on after about 60 minutes to re-energize the team and pulverize the tiring opposition.

So far, so good. This still leaves space for three backline players on the bench – a scrumhalf, and two “utility” players, including one who can play fly-half (i.e., kick goals). But for some reason – and I do concede there might be good reasons, such as hidden injuries to certain key forwards that we don’t know about [v] – Nienaber insisted on a 6-2 split in the game against the Wallabies. I.e., he had six forwards and only two backs on the bench – Herschel Jantjies, a scrum-half, and Willemse – a utility back, to be sure, but one who hasn’t shaped all that well as a goal-kicker during his Super Rugby career.

Bear in mind too, if you can stand any more detail, that both Morné Steyn and Elton Jantjies, both experienced and handy fly-halves, are also in the full squad in Australia; and that during the famous final test against the British & Irish Lions (back in Seffrica), when it became clear that Pollard wasn’t on song, it was Steyn who was brought on from the bench and he actually won the game for the Boks [vi]. Steyn might be 37, but, as David Bullard and I can tell you, there is no place for ageism in the South Africa of today.

But at a press conference following the game, one at which the team for this coming Saturday’s game (also against the Wallabies) was announced, when the sports journalists finally plucked up the courage to ask Nienaber the obvious question [vii] – why in heaven’s name doesn’t he go for a 5-3 split on the bench in this next game, why not have either Steyn or Jantjies on the bench lest Pollard goes off the boil yet again? – Nienaber indulged full-tilt in some Chinese bookkeeping.

You see, he explained, looking as relaxed and languid as Mabe did in his chair the other day, the team has its own “tests” when it comes to its efficacy. It can win certain games by 20 points but that doesn’t mean the team played well in terms of its own internal check-sheet – handling, passing, scrumming, etc. – and it can lose a game and yet perform well per its check-sheet.

So, said Nienaber, one musn’t be “over-emotional” about having lost the game against the Wallabies. “Looking at [Sunday’s] game unemotionally, one would quickly realise that we could’ve still won that game, and nobody would’ve said anything. ... We wouldn't [be having] this debate about a contingency plan. ...

“[M]aking willy nilly changes would fundamentally go against the objective manner in which team management try to assess every performance before plotting the course for the next match. ... Regardless of a result, we’ve got a report card template that we go through after every game,” said Nienaber.

“Nobody” Nienaber added, “misses a kick at goal on purpose.”

Nope, Jacques, nobody misses a goal kick on purpose, nor does anybody lose on purpose. But, as we hippies used to say, shxt happens, maibru (cf. Novak Djokovic and the US Open). So, Jacques, cover your (and our) posterior (s). I don’t know what they taught you in Ireland, but where I come from the aim of the game is to put the highest number of points on the score board – not the internal report card.

In the immortal words of my brother Joel, watching from overseas: “A team that relies on penalties for points must have a kicker with a 90% success rate. Pollard used to have that – he’s lost it. Jantjies also erratic. Must play Morné.”

“Point is, my brother continued, “Pollard didn’t miss difficult kicks. If Boks lose again through missed kicks, will Nienaber keep his job? I suppose in South Africa, that’s possible.”

C’mon Jacques, don’t be a Mabe, make the foreigner eat his words. Don’t fiddle with forms – watch the rugger. And though you’ve already botched it for this coming Saturday – even if we win – there is still a bit of time to avoid the sobriquet TMCBJM (too much Chinese bookkeeping Jacques maibru).


[i] I am a huge fan of the (original) Teletubbies show, which I was forced to watch day in and day out with my son 20 years ago; and if my wife and I had been fortunate enough to have more children I’d have insisted on calling them Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La-La or Po.

[ii] For which, for the record, I salute him!

[iii] I tend to agree with coach Swys de Bruin that the scrum is a black magic business and that the guys in them practise dark arts no mere mortal can understand. As De Bruin argues, “who cares how they do it as long as they get the ball out”.

[iv] Rassie did some “forward thinking” – ha ha – apparently rare among world rugby coaches until then.

[v] Nienaber might have had three loose forwards on the bench due to concern about whether Duane Vermeulen, a loose forward who’s returning from injury, would last the game. Or he might have been concerned that one of the locks wouldn’t last the game – as in fact happened, with Lood de Jager – or that one or both of them ought to be rested after half the game. There are tough games coming up – and Eben Etzebeth and De Jager are indeed the “engine room” of the Bokke.

[vi] Enlisting Steyn during the B&I tour was doubtless Rassie’s idea. So, questions: Is Nienaber enjoying calling the shots a bit too much? Oedipal problems? Doesn’t Rassie have a cell phone?

[vii] It was palpable how uneasy the journos were about asking the obvious question – obviously due to the dipping standards among the fourth estate, about which the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) has been so concerned.