What made Danie Gerber the best Springbok ever? Football
SA rugby would be played a lot better at the elite level if kids had the option to learn soccer skills at school
A lot of issues plague SA rugby, many of them years old and some seemingly more recent.
Player drain has been happening since the onset of professionalism, and it continues to gather pace as the rand weakens and foreign clubs dig into their deep pockets for the best talent.
The Springboks’ brand has become tarnished after years of underachievement as a result of declining performances at Super Rugby level.
SA players don’t seem equipped with the same skills as most of their foreign counterparts, which is odd because for sheer talent, passion and history, SA rugby should be second to none.
Besides the cold measurement of results, which have been middling to woeful across every level of the game where SA teams don’t exclusively play against each other, performances by local teams are often embarrassing.
Professional players can’t pass off their left hands, or throw a lineout ball to the intended target with metronomic accuracy, or understand how to manipulate space to score a try. There are myriad tiny details, which could be nitpicked to eternity about the shortcomings in SA rugby.
We could chastise coaches such as the the Stormers’ Robbie Fleck, or the Sharks’ Robert du Preez – and they are culpable. But the problems with SA rugby start much earlier than when a player trundles out for the Springboks, or in Super Rugby, or the Currie Cup. The lack of skills development needed to thrive at the top of the game stems from their formative years as players and sportsmen.
SA’s top rugby schools such as Grey College, Paarl Boys’ High and Paul Roos are among the best in the world.
Natural size and physicality are one of SA’s strengths, but also one of its weaknesses. Winning the contact battle with a narrow gameplan against players not physically able to cope with the confrontation is a major reason why SA’s best schools thrive.
It should follow that with our schoolboy system and obsession with school results (and let’s be clear – not performances), SA rugby should always be near the top of the pile, regardless of the competition. But we are not.
My theory is that rugby players at formative level are being done a disservice by the-win-at-all costs mentality.
Many elite schools (including the one my eight-year-old son attends) don’t offer football as a winter sport option. And they should. Football is arguably the best sport to hone the skills necessary in other ball-based sports.
For a start, it requires players to think ahead and use creativity and vision. It requires stamina, speed, flexibility, skill, perseverance, good temperament, teamwork and courage. Maybe not the same type of courage as rugby, but there is still a physical element to football that is undeniable.
Football is a 360-degree game, meaning you can play in any direction, increasing your options but also multiplying the number of decisions to be made under pressure.
Rugby is a 180-degree game. Everything is played with the objective of going forward. Football uses space much more cunningly. It is about having the vision to pass a ball to where a player will be, and not where a player is. The ability to see that space, calculate the speed of a teammate’s run and play a pass with the correct weight and accuracy for that player to collect in his stride, is the type of skill so often lacking in rugby.
Danie Gerber used to play football with township kids behind the old Port Elizabeth airport. Those many hours spent honing his ball skills in another way helped make him the greatest Springbok of all time in my book.
Former British & Irish Lions and Wales skipper Sam Warburton is another who played football at school – with his best mate Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid player was also a very good rugby player. It worked both ways.
Rugby is a wonderful game in so many ways. I’m convinced it would be played a lot better at the elite level if there were more options for children, at primary school level particularly, to play football.