THE HEART OF A TRUE RUGBY SUPPORTER
My name is Kevin van Rensburg and I am a student, lover, spectator and a huge fan of our beloved game of rugby. I played many years from school boy level to premier club level and also Natal representative rugby. After playing I started coaching and I still do at this present time. I coached at schools as Glenwood Boys, Westville Boys and Rondebosch Boys. I have also coached top club teams at club level in Durban and also in Cape Town. I really love the game and that is why my heart is writing this letter.
Lately I have been watching games whether live or on television and a couple of minutes into the game and then I actually find myself doing something else. I am not glued to the game anymore and that is a concern to me. It is as if I get bored, frustrated and disappointed, which should never be the case in our beloved game. It is not that I am supporting a specific team and that the calls go against them but it is rather the bigger picture of South African rugby (from school to national level model) that is a concern to me. To me the definition of rugby is a collision game that involves highly skilled individuals that play as a team. It is 80 minutes of entertainment, pace, power, skill, excitement, nerve-wrecking, edge of your seat kind of stuff. It seems that our model has changed to:
Scrum for a penalty – kick it out
Maul for a penalty – kick it out
Maul for a try
In between that sequence one can expect a yellow or a red card. That same cycle keeps repeating itself and ultimately filters down to schoolboy rugby as well and it feels as if the game is losing its flavour. I remember a coach once mentioned to me that forwards determine the win and the backs determine how far. The game now dictates that the forwards determine the win and also determine by how far. The backs in my opinion are now a show piece and not a force anymore. The backs even join the mauls which is already impossible to stop.
We are currently watching a game that includes box kicking, up and under, scrums, penalties, maul, maul penalties, yellow cards, red cards, penalties, re-set scrums and the cycle repeats itself.
This is not a dig at referees but rather a concern from a rugby lover that is watching a game without the thrill and flow that got me falling in love with the game of rugby. The rugby lover and community is concerned and this plea serves as a mouthpiece for coaches, players, fans etc. that experience the same frustration week in and week out. We know that the scrum results into a penalty and then goes to a maul that basically can’t be stopped and ultimately leads to another penalty and eventually into a try.
At schoolboy level our recruiting style or policy has become:
Recruit the biggest pack and win the game
Scrum the opponent to pieces, keep the ball in the scrum to milk the penalty instead of getting it in and out and to let the boys play
Again, this is not a dig at referees because they do an incredible job and it is a high pressure job. They truly do their best within the framework of the laws given to them. In my opinion most referees are retired backline players that has not done an apprenticeship in the front row or the so called ‘underworld’. The front rows are laughing at each other, pinning each other for penalties that might or should have gone the other way. Knowing that the referee was tricked into the penalty. When last did we watch a game between 15 men vs. 15 men? It is my view rugby should always be two full teams facing each other, no matter what.
In the beginning of this letter I stated that rugby is a collision game and I fully agree that safety is the first priority. These days red cards are issued for two players that collided with heads in the heat of the rugby moment. Sometimes the head gets in the way for example when a player changes level or dips, which cannot always be avoided – but yet the red card is issued. Clashing heads in my view will always be part of the natural game. It’s like saying you must fight in the UFC, but if you punch in the face you get penalised.
Envision a game that makes a couple of changes to bring back the flavour that we once enjoyed and got addicted to. This view is not to be negative because the reality is rugby will continue whether I am frustrated or not. The game is bigger than a person and it is such a great game and there is so much more to rugby than only the game. It teaches us so much about life, values and behaviour and it is a vehicle of opportunity.
What might the perfect game look like?
Two full teams competing against each other 15 vs. 15. If a card is given the player should leave the field, and be replaced by another player for the full duration of the game. At professional level a huge fine could be issued and the player could face suspension (he will think twice before doing it again). At schoolboy level the player could face suspension. A true rugby player trains to play a full game and would never want to be taken off the field or be suspended.
A try will be awarded 5 points and the conversion could be rewarded 3 points. Penalties could be 1 point and a drop goal 2 points. That could possibly encourage a good flow, attacking and attractive rugby.
The maximum penalty at scrum time could be a short-arm. This could assist to keep the game flowing and to stop games turning into a penalty shout out between two fly-halves. The scrum might then again become an attacking platform which I think it was intended for. It is my view that the scrum has become a penalty machine, robbing the game from its true purpose. It was always intended for your backs to launch their creative attack from.
If a team mauls, the defensive team should be able to do anything in their power to stop the biggest legal obstruction in the game. It is my view that everything in the game should be a 50/50 contest. A well packed maul means a penalty, yellow or red card or a try against you because it is almost impossible to stop.
It could be allowed to maul from 22m line to the 22m line, but once the ball moves into the 22m the referee could indicate utilise it, which means the ball must go. If you kicked out 5m from the try line or inside the opposition’s 22m line, the ball gets played off the top or whichever way players choose, except for mauling.
A ruck could be contested on one’s feet and it must be clear and obvious, not leaning on a body or a knee touching the floor and one only gets one attempt at the ball.
In my view the scrum, maul and the break-down is where a lot of grey areas are, and penalties are conceded that could be at times an educated guess.
Envision watching the top schoolboys, club players, provincial and national players playing the game of rugby within such an interpretation of the rugby framework. Envision the Springboks playing New-Zealand and the game is driven by attack and not by penalties. Attack to me encourages flow and penalties again kill and stop the flow. A game where it is always 15 men vs. 15 men instead of 15 vs. 13/14 men is more ideal, than what we have become accustomed to.
Herewith a scenario that paints the picture: imagine I fly to England to watch South Africa play at Twickenham. The trip cost me R130 000 and it includes my travel and tickets. In the first 15 minutes the Boks get a red card and they are down to 14 men for 65 minutes of test match rugby. I can probably get off my seat and start making my way home as my winning odds have been diminished and chance to win almost made impossible.
Envision the kind of schoolboy rugby culture we can breed by watching a game where kicks are limited to the 22m line only. This will teach our boys to play an exciting brand where the attack has to outsmart and outrun the defence, and everything is not determined by how strong your tight five is. A game where our advice as coaches is not to keep the ball in the scrum to milk the penalty, but to rather play the ball, when it is at the eight man’s feet.
The plan is certainly not to take away the power of your pack because the pack can and will still be dominant. A game should never be won or lost because the scrum penalty was awarded for you or against you as that will motivate a game that rather wants to keep the ball in the scrum. We deserve a game that is motivated by attack and not forced penalties. Penalties should be given for fist fighting, taking a players feet away from him in mid-air, clear and obvious off-sides, competing the breakdown off your feet etc.
I am certainly not a know it all or want to re-invent an already great game. I just want to see game that I think the players, coaches and supporters deserve to experience. I furthermore think that the game and name of rugby also deserves it. A game that is dominated by attacking play, great and many tries, coaches outsmarting each other, games where referees are not blamed for a win or a loss or people saying the referee guessed at the scrum, maul or breakdown.
The current stats indicates that out of 80 minutes of rugby we only end up playing more or less 25 minutes of game time. Envision we can push the actual play time closer to 50 or 60 minutes.
Although this is my view which I have shared with many – I truly hope that the influencers and decision makers of South African rugby, individuals like Swys de Bruyn, Nick Mallet, Rassie Erasmus, prominent referees and players could reflect on some of the matters, and influence the international rugby culture and framework.
Let’s play the GAME OF RUGBY
Kevin van Rensburg