All That Glitters

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Many years ago I accompanied my aunt, uncle and cousins from Johannesburg on one of their holidays to the KZN South Coast. These holidays were always fun and we got up to the usual mischief kids get up to.

In previous years my uncle had always brought down his Land Cruiser bakkie. It was very uncomfortable. We kids had to sit in the back on small camping chairs, pillows or the floor if none of the former were available. The glutes took a good bashing thanks to the rather unsophisticated suspension and no-nonsense toughness that is inherent in all Land Cruisers (I am a big fan of that no-nonsense toughness, as you may know).

That year however I learned that he’d sold his Land Cruiser and bought a brand new sparkling double cab.

We set off for a day of jet-skiing on the river in the double-cab in moderate comfort; we had seats to sit on and everything. “Good job uncle” I thought as we thundered along to our destination a lot quicker than the Land Cruiser would ever have managed.

We had a great time zooming about on the jet-ski and lost track of time. Time was then brought back into sharp focus when we noticed the tide coming in and realised it was time to get the jet-ski out of the water, and so we encountered the first problem with the sparkly new double cab. For all its sparkliness, it simply couldn’t get the jet-ski and trailer out of the water. There was no traction.

Disaster was avoided thanks to an old Land Rover that appeared to live at the beach. It only had reverse gear, but still had 4×4 and front diff-lock. It pulled the double cab, trailer and jet-ski out of the water with little trouble.

The next time I saw that uncle he’d traded the double-cab in for another Land Cruiser.

This year Gary Gold joined the Sharks with much fanfare after the untimely and unexpected departure of Jake the Snake White. He and the Sharks publicity machine promised a new attacking team. He said the Sharks would focus on being entertaining and that they would score lots of tries!

So in the pre-season that is what they did. They tossed out all of the pragmatic no-nonsense toughness that Jake had tried to instil and instead went about developing a sparkly glittering attack that was supposed to score lots of tries, win games and ultimately win the tournament, making us all happy and content.

Only, like the fancy double-cab, the Sharks didn’t have the necessary tools in their squad to do that. For many years the Sharks method has been a simple one, uncompromising brutal defence, a solid set piece, solid kicking game and lethal counter-attack. The squad was, in effect, like a reliable old Land Cruiser, it might not get you there fast, but it will get you there and back.

Gary Gold and company then asked it to be a Corvette. Only problem was, all the underpinnings, the unsophisticated suspension and big solid chunk of a straight six engine remained. You can’t bolt a Corvette body onto a Land Cruiser and expect it to be a racing car all of a sudden. It will fail miserably, and that is what has happened to the Sharks. They haven’t scored all those tries that they promised, in fact they’ve looked even more one-dimensional, and their once vaunted uncompromisingly brutal defence seems to have been forgotten and they now have the structural rigidity of melted cheese.

They are a Land Cruiser trying to be a Corvette, and they’ve realised this simply cannot work, and so they’re now lost, with no idea what they’re actually supposed to be. I only hope that, like my uncle, they realise their mistake and learn their lessons well. Change is all well and good, but change needs to be planned, and managed. You cannot ignore what your strengths are and play to your weakness, which is just foolish.

CAN I BE FRANK?

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It seems I am not the only one who wants to be Frank. He is possibly the most emulated man on the planet, this Frank. Even women want to be Frank and frankly, Frank is a terrible name for a member of the fairer gender.

I’m often surrounded by rugby fans who want to be Frank too.

“Let me be frank,” they’ll say, “this bloody Sharks team was useless today, useless!”

At which point a group of his friends who have all been Frank and his good friend Honest at some point during the evening, will nod and say, “ja, useless, no bloody commitment from the boys, they looked like they didn’t want to be here! They didn’t want it enough!”

As a season ticket holder I hear it in the stands as well.

“Jislaaik that bloody Fred Zeilinga! How does he even make the team!” Frank will say in between sips of luke-warm beer and profanities hurled at the referee about his parentage and eyesight.

Another Honest impersonator, Frank’s best and probably only friend, will then shout more profanities and accuse the players of being slap-gat and devoid of talent.

Frank’s latest impersonator will agree, and then spill his luke-warm beer on the seven year old sitting in front of him at his first rugby match, a treat his father has been planning for months, while the child’s father desperately tries to ignore the profanity and even more desperately tries to avoid punching Frank and Honest in the face in front of his child thus setting a bad example.

So now it’s my turn to be Frank and Honest, please see the points below –

It’s okay to question a player or team’s form, teamwork, coaching, potential and even their skills.

It is not okay to question a player or team’s commitment. They go out there every week and do the best they can with the tools they have. Sometimes things will go against them, refereeing decisions, form, selection, injury, personal problems but rest assured that when they go out there, they do “want it more” and they are trying their best.

It is okay to swear in a bar full of adults after drinking too much beer. That is what bars are for.

It is not okay, under any circumstances to get fall-down drunk in the stands at rugby match and call the referee a c**t in front of a seven year old kid, even if it is your own kid. If you do that you’re a c**t and should be banned from the stadium after being flogged by a succession of parents who have to now explain to their child why they shouldn’t use that word when they’re angry.

It is okay to disagree, it really is.

It is not okay to force your point of view on the person you disagree with by any means necessary. No amount of swearing and shouting is going to get me to agree that a rugby stadium is a suitable environment in which to act like a drunken lout. If you can’t handle your alcohol, stay at home. Your “passion” for the team does not make it okay to use foul language in front of other peoples’ children.

So let me be frank and honest. If you’re that guy please do us all a favour and watch the game in a pub or at home and for heaven’s sake, stop swearing in front of your kids.

Square peg, round hole…

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Rugby is a funny game, from one week to the next a player or team can go from being the toast of the town to just…. Toast…

It’s unfair if you think about it. These guys run out onto the field every week to play a game, sure it’s a game they get paid to play and it’s in essence “a job” but can it ever really be a job?

They say, “find something you love to do for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I love driving fast cars but am yet to find someone willing to pay me to do that, unless of course I buy an M3 and become a pizza delivery man, which in itself would be a pointless exercise because I’d eat all the pizza, get fat and then pay the company back after I got fired.

Rugby players, though, they do get to do what they love but due to the nature of sport, and of fans, I suspect that love for the game could get soured over time. Here’s a scenario for you. A man works in an office as a designer of some sort. He loves designing things and he gets paid to do it because he is very good at it. It makes him happy. How amazing is that.

Then one day the thing he designed is shown to a group of people who love the products the company makes, and they love it! The next day though, the employee is told by his boss that he has to design something else. It isn’t really what he is good at designing but he does it, because it’s his job and he takes pride in what he does. The thing gets shown to that same group of people and they hate it. “It’s ugly they cry, we like the old one! Bring it back, fire the designer!”

The designer was just doing what he was told, but now the job he loves has become a strain, it’s stressing him out because now he has to keep designing ugly things because he’s been told to, and if he doesn’t, they’ll just get somebody else to do it. His job is suddenly on the line and the harder he tries to design the best version of the horrible thing his boss has asked him to design, the harder it becomes and the more negativity he receives.

I think the life of a rugby player can be much the same. Take Bjorn Basson for example. He burst onto the scene as a try scoring dynamo at the Cheetahs. I once watched him score four tries in a losing effort against the Sharks and he made it look effortless. He even became a Springbok. Then the lure of money and big city lights took him to Pretoria and The Bulls. He was told, “listen Bjorn, Morne is going to kick the ball high in the air. You have to run after it and get it back for us”.

I’m sure he must have asked questions like, “but I score lots of tries, why not just give me the ball in some space and let me do that instead?”

They didn’t.

Nevertheless, he worked very hard at becoming the best exponent of kick chasing in the modern game, because he loves the game, but what happened to the try scoring dynamo we all know and love?

A key to managing people is to encourage them to play to their strengths, I believe anyway. One of my bosses once told me I was a square peg in a round hole, and he was probably right. Right now I see too many players in South African rugby who are square pegs in round holes, performing roles that they aren’t suited to because they’re told to or because of “the game-plan” and as a result their natural ability, that thing that made them so good in the first place, is wasted, much like our designer friend I mentioned earlier. Occasionally they get it right, as with Willie Le Roux but that is more the exception than the rule, because most often the flair is replaced by over-coached paint by numbers play, bash the ball up, kick it in the air, chase it, wash, rinse repeat. Eventually the players forget how to see gaps, and run into the guy on either side of the gap instead. Rugby becomes dull, players become nothing more than robots in an effectively designed but ultimately flawed unit.

In New Zealand and Australia individuals with talent are celebrated and encouraged to express it on the field. We can learn a lot from them. They have the structure but keep the vision required to make the game, a game.

STATUS SCOTTY!

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The Starship Enterprise is a complex beast full of flux capacitors warp drives and doors that open by themselves, much like those you find at most shopping centres these days. When everything is working Captain Kirk has the most advanced, spectacular spaceship Earth has to offer. When something is out of sync however, or too many circuits are blown, or the engineer simply doesn’t have the power, then the ship becomes a bit of a lame duck and has to rely on shields to defend it from the inevitable Klingon attack.

The shields take a beating from phaser blasts and all manner of things, but because of the ships technical issues, the Enterprise and its crew cannot fight back, and must content themselves with defending their ship until such time as a moment of ingenuity or engineering magic saves them from the certain doom they face. Inevitably, the shields lose power and the ship takes some hits. Vital pieces of the ship are damaged and all seems lost. The Klingons are going to blow them to smithereens; Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Sulu, Checkov and McCoy are all that stands between survival and total devastation.

Somehow, between them, they manage to gain respite long enough to mount a counter offensive. Scotty gets the warp drive fixed with a spanner and some chewing gum. Kirk puts the ship into a cloud of something obscure, that just happens to be right where he needs it to be, that the Klingons can’t shoot though. Chekov says something funny and Sulu radios Star Command for backup while McCoy fixes Spock’s injuries so that he can once more contribute to the saved day.

To my mind, the Sharks are currently in the same spot as the under fire Enterprise, the shields are up and they are taking hits from all sides. They’re on the defensive. The ship is damaged, the engine room is on fire, major crew members are down and all that stands between them and certain doom is the ingenuity of its coach, captain and players. On the horizon is a moment of respite, the Starship Sharks have a bye after which they will get some of their key components back, not all of them, but enough, one hopes, to stay the tide of battle and turn things around so that they may survive another day. It gives them an opportunity to assess, to decide their next move in a moment of clarity in amongst the chaos of weekly battle. The flawed captain has a chance at redemption. He can show those that have written him off as a hot-headed man prone to violence that he is more than that, that he can lead men into battle and come out the other end with his honour restored. The under fire director of rugby can show that he has the strategic and leadership capabilities to lead his charges to victory against all the odds. The crew have the opportunity to come together and say, “we will not go quietly, we will go down swinging. We will not simply succumb to this circumstance that would have us sitting in the bottom five. No, we shall stand up! We shall fight! If we lose, we will go down swinging and the rugby world will know, we are the Sharks! Write us off at your peril!”

Or, they won’t… And we’ll be disappointed…

The Sharks – Where are the players?

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One can lament the last minute kick by Fred Zeilinga all you like, the opportunity to win was there and unfortunately the young man couldn’t slot the penalty, it happens, it’s one of the things I love about sport in general, the fine line between winning and losing, the minute margins between ecstasy and gloom.

The Lions won fair and square and it was a great game to watch, so I won’t talk anymore about that.

What I do want to touch on is team selection and available players. The Lions has, as far as I know, their first choice squad available. Johan Ackerman really has worked wonders with these guys, the commitment they play with and their enjoyment of the game and team environment is clear for everyone to see. That said, there are probably four players in their line-up that could sneak a Springbok call-up. Warren Whitely, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe and Andries Coetzee. The rest of the guys are playing out of their skin, above themselves if you will. Faf de Klerk was a livewire on Saturday but he’s not the guy you want calling the shots against the All Blacks, the same goes for Akker van der Merwe and Ruan Combrink.

The Sharks were missing the following Springboks, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira, Pieter Steph du Toit, Jean Deysel, Ryan Kankowski, Pat Lambie, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Stephan Lewies. SP Marais was also rested. Of the guys that filled in, Dale Chadwick, Franco Marais and Lourens Adriaanse did well in the front row, the scrums were solid if not spectacular, and the second row the same. I thought Willem Alberts was outstanding on Saturday, the big hits were coming thick and fast and his presence was keenly felt, most emphatically by poor Mark Richards when they collided.

The 9/10 axis was okay, the centres were fairly anonymous. Andre Estherhuysen is growing but not yet the finished article and Waylon Murray, well, let’s just say, in my weekly points allocation table for team effectiveness that I do to assist my fantasy rugby picks, he is the only player in the whole competition who scores zero in terms of what he contributes. Odwa was good at fullback and Lwazi Mvovo scored a great try.

So what is my point? The Sharks are currently fielding a B team. To even get within a penalty kick of winning against a full strength Lions side is pretty good going. The situation isn’t going to change in a hurry. We have at least another 4-6 weeks of inconsistency with regards to player combinations before the suspended and injured players return, which is pretty much the end of the competition if you think about it. It is a great opportunity for the fringe players to stake a claim for a more permanent spot in the team. It is not a great situation for scoring competition points and should be seen as almost an extended away leg in the sense that any bonus point is worth its weight in gold. The good news is that the Sharks still have the Rebels and Reds to come after a fairly horrific few weeks against the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Waratahs away from home. Home derbies can go either way and I suspect will be the difference between mid-table mediocrity and a possible wild card spot, if all the cards fall in the Shark’s favour from here on out.