Category Archives: South Africa

Lions’ coach Ackermann asleep at the wheel again

Last year, Johan Ackermann, the coach of South Africa’s Lions super rugby team was literally asleep during the final against the Hurricanes. His team lost to the Hurricanes 3-20.

This year, he appeared to be dozing again as his team lost, only to a different New Zealand team, the Crusaders.

The Lions lost a player to a red card about a minute before half-time but given the inherent advantages they had — they were playing at home, at altitude which made the visitors prone to running out of gas, and in dry weather which has always suited them — they could still have won.

The Lions were trailing 3-15 at half-time and this being a game where the winner would end up taking all, they should have used the kickable penalties they were awarded in the second half to move closer on the scoreboard. But for some mysterious reason, they kept going for touch and aiming for a try instead. At least two kickable penalties were wasted in this manner; a score of 9-15 would have given the home team that much more fire in their bellies in the final run home.

The Lions lost loose forward Kwagga Smith a minute before half-time when he collided with Crusaders’ full-back David Havili who had gone up to take a high kick. Smith had no chance of taking the ball and did not go up in the air to contest it either, but just stood there like a water buffalo; it resulted in Havili’s tripping over him and taking a very dangerous toss. Referee Jaco Peyper had no option but to send Smith off.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note the difference in the way that referees react to the likelihood of head and neck injuries these days. I remember a Test match in 2003, when Australia’s Wendell Sailor tackled All Black Mils Muliaina while the latter was in the air. It was much more dangerous than what Smith did but Sailor only got a yellow card.)

The Lions failed to learn from their previous win, against the Waikato Chiefs in the semi-finals. In that game, the Chiefs were terribly tired towards the latter half of the game and, after leading by a big margin at half-time, were beaten 44-29. The trip from New Zealand to Johannesburg and playing at altitude really took its toll.

Thus Ackermann should have told his men to keep the gap between the two teams on the scoreboard as small as possible and go for broke in the last 10 minutes when the Crusaders would be feeling the effects of altitude and the long flight. But by the 62nd minute, when the Lions got their first try, the score had blown out to 3-25. It could well have been 9-25.

(It must be noted that the Crusaders’ coach Scott Robertson displayed a great deal of intelligence in his substitutions, bringing on players off the bench to ensure that those who took the field at the start were not exhausted before they were replaced.)

Given that the Lions also scored with about seven minutes left, taking those two kickable penalties would have put them within two points. And that would have no doubt given them additional energy to fight it out, especially in front of a vociferous home crowd that filled the stadium to its maximum.

Alas, poor instructions from Ackermann again played the Lions false. This is his last game as coach; maybe the man who replaces him will realise that a coach can do a great deal to help a team win.

Comedy Central screwed up badly by appointing Trevor Noah

It is difficult to think that a company like Comedy Central, which has been so successful in commissioning comedy shows that satirise the news, could make a mistake like it did in 2015 when it let Jon Stewart go with an election around the corner.

It is impossible to believe that the company could not have persuaded Stewart to stick on and go after the November 8 voting took place this year. Perhaps it thought that its choice of replacement, South African Trevor Noah, would be able to find his groove after a few months.

In media outlets here and there, the reason advanced for bringing in a younger host is said to be the need to attract a younger audience; the argument made is that Stewart’s audience was mostly a 45+ demographic while Noah, just 31 at the time he took over, would pull in the crowd below 40, a group that the management deems to be a wealthier demographic and what it needs as it looks to the future.

But if that was the expectation, then it has not been realised. Audiences for The Daily Show, which Stewart nurtured into one of the top-rating shows in the US, have fallen by as much as 40 percent. Comedy Central says it is not worried because the profile of the audience has changed as it wanted. But Noah himself is proving to be a poor replacement as host.

It is true that practically anybody would look bad besides Stewart who, over the 19 years that he was the host, made the show into a vehicle for both satirising the news and also for often conducting more serious journalism during his half-an-hour than most TV anchors and interviewers manage in a month of Sundays.

His interviews with that serial spreader of falsehoods, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the great New York Times liar Judith Miller, the latter of Scooter Libby leak fame, are masterpieces which any TV journalist would be proud to own.

He also nurtured a whole band of talented artists: John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee all have their own shows now. Any of them would have been a better replacement for Stewart than Noah.

Noah’s shortcoming is just not that he is not an American. Oliver is British but has learnt more about American politics than many American hosts have. No, Noah’s talent lies in stand-up and not the more serious sort of comedy which The Daily Show made its own; he is the equivalent of Canadian Russell Peters who can provoke a good belly-laugh but does not make the viewer think.

At times, watching Noah on The Daily Show these days is a painful exercise. He struggles to move from one topic to another and tries various gimmicks to gain traction, all of which tend to fail. His interview skills are poor and he has the same lines in his opening every single night.

It would not surprise me if the election is Noah’s last stand and the management decides on a change after January 20 next year.

Old is gold, but not when it involves rugby backs

It’s funny that none of the rugby scribes around wrote a single word about the selection of 34-year-old Matt Giteau, 32-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper and 28-year-old Will Genia in the Australian side to face New Zealand in the first of the annual internationals.

In the normal course of things, one would assume that the coach of any team that has a chance of winning the World Cup would like to start aiming for that target right at the start of the four-year cycle. Australia made it to the last World Cup final and have won the Cup twice, so they are one of the nations that can reasonably entertain hopes of winning again.

But you can’t do that with a 38-year-old centre which is what Giteau will be in 2019 when the next rugby World Cup rolls around. And you wouldn’t want a 32-year-old scrum-half either. Neither would you want a 36-year-old winger for the 2019 team – and that is what Ashley-Cooper will be in four years’ time.

Is one to believe that Nick Phipps, who performed the job at the base of the scrum adequately in the last World Cup, was not good enough for the Australian coach Michael Cheika? Indeed, Phipps showed his prowess by coming on and playing on the right wing after Australia lost three backs, including Giteau, to injury and also scoring the lone try that the home team got as it suffered a big defeat against New Zealand.

Is one to also believe that among the five teams that do duty in the Super Rugby tournament there is not one individual who can fit in as a centre and that Cheika’s only option was to call in a 34-year-old with injury issues to face up to what is arguably the fittest and strongest rugby team in the world? Or that Australia does not have a single decent wing three-quarter in its five Super Rugby teams?

From the moment that Cheika announced these selections, it was obvious that he was more interested in pleasing his masters at the Australian Rugby Union than building a team for the next World Cup. New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003 when Reuben Thorne’s side won it back from Australia, and winning that trophy would have pleased the local big-wigs.

Of course, Cheika is not the only one who is looking to the past when trying to fill the ranks. His South African counterpart Allister Coetzee displayed similar thinking by playing Bryan Habana on the wing against Argentina on the same weekend. Habana is 33 and I am yet to see a 37-year-old winger play in a team in the World Cup. South Africa is also a team that would be in contention in any World Cup, having won the Cup twice, once admittedly under rather dubious circumstances. So why Habana? South Africa has one of the largest pools of players to pick from and someone like Courtnall Skosan would have benefitted from the exposure.

On the other hand, Steve Hansen, the coach of New Zealand, has brought in new players instead of depending on any old hands. He lost much more experience compared to the others because Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and Keven Mealamu all ended their international careers after the last World Cup.

Hansen has retained two older players in Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino; the latter will be 37 when the next World Cup comes around but is one of the fittest and strongest players in world rugby and is unlikely to be a liability in the team. Remember, he is a forward and does not have to be a strong runner – even though he does a fair bit of scoring in internationals.

Lions’ coach was asleep during final loss to Hurricanes

A good rugby coach knows when to bring a player on for maximum effect. He also knows when a player is not performing to expectations and brings on a substitute.

Given this, Johan Ackermann, the coach of South Africa’s Lions super rugby team should wear a goodly portion of the blame for the team’s loss to the Wellington Hurricanes in the final of the 2016 super rugby tournament.

The Lions’ entire game is built around running the ball wide, with the fulcrum being fly-half Elton Jantjies. In dry conditions, with quick ball coming his way, Jantjies is a formidable player, as he showed in the semi-final against the Otago Highlanders.

But on the day of the final against the Hurricanes, it was cold, wet and windy. In addition, Jantjies had to contend with a bunch of Hurricanes players who were quick off the mark when defending, harassing their Lions counterparts no end.

Under these conditions, Jantjies played poorly. It was his delayed pass to centre Lionel Mapoe that led to the latter making a hurried low kick to try and clear the ball to safety, a kick that landed in the left hand of Hurricanes’ winger Cory Jane who grabbed it gratefully and sauntered over for the Hurricanes’ first try.

In the second half, trailing 3-13, and with 11 minutes to play, Jantjies was again at fault, almost ambling as he tried to touch down a ball that had been kicked into the try-in goal area by Hurricanes’ substitute hooker Ricky Riccitelli.

Jantjies’ opposite number, Beauden Barrett, was much quicker and was travelling at a speed of knots; he got his hands to the ball well before Jantjies, to give the Hurricanes their second try.

Apart from three penalties, two to the Hurricanes and one to the Lions, that was all the scoring on the day.

Jantjies kicked poorly as well, missing another penalty which was well within his range. On other occasions, the team made poor decisions, no doubt influenced by Jantjies’ poor form, that led to them taking penalty kicks and looking for ground advantage rather than trying to get the three points on offer. Given that their lineout functioned poorly on the day, these decisions did not do them much good.

One only has to go back to a tape of the semi-final win that the Lions registered over the Highlanders to see how dominant Jantjies can be when conditions suit him. But if a player cannot be at his best during a final, for whatever reason, then the coach needs to realise this and bring on a substitute.

So what was Ackermann doing? Or did he not trust Jaco van der Walt, the substitute fly-half? If van der Walt was incapable of taking on the role of substitute fly-half, why was he on the bench? If he was not deemed suitable, why did Ackermann not bring him on as full-back and switch Andries Coetzee to fly-half?

When Plan A is not working in any game, a coach should push the team to try Plan B. Ackermann failed miserably — but nobody seemed to notice his failure to react.

It’s not surprising, given the quality of reportage these days.

Pity things didn’t end on a better note for Habana

No matter where your allegiances lay in the the first Rugby World Cup semi-final, you’d have to feel for Bryan Habana, one of the great South African wingers, who is unlikely to be seen at this level again.

No doubt Habana was hoping to have a major impact on this game. But it wasn’t to be and all he can play for now is to decide third and fourth place honours. Equalling Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries is poor consolation because he will never be talked of in the same class as Lomu.

Habana had the worst of games, a real nightmare. Early on, as the All Blacks rumbled towards the South African line, Habana chose to advance early to try and effect an interception but he ended up tackling Richie McCaw after he had passed the ball. As a result, he left young Lood de Jager as the last bastion of defence to face two All Blacks forwards, Jerome Kaino ball in hand, with Dane Coles running in support on the right.

De Jager went for Kaino as the All Blacks flanker switched to the right with Coles taking the inner track, but he was too late. Kaino, tough as nails, shoved him off and scored what would be the first of two tries in the game. This is de Jager’s first World Cup, and Habana’s third, so it is fair to expect that the senior man should have acted more prudently. Fullback Willie le Roux arrived on the scene after the deed was done.

When Daniel Carter was taking the conversion for this try, Habana charged out of his blocks well before Carter had even moved to take his kick. The All Black five-eighth kicked the ball wide of the posts but got a second chance at the conversion because of Habana’s illegal move. He got the two points on the second try.

Habana had a few good runs to collect high balls, but these were small returns for such a talented man. South Africa wasn’t playing a running game at all, so he was restricted to doing these things and occasionally foraging for the ball in the ruck.

Then, in the second half, Habana reached across the ruck divide to tap the ball from Aaron Smith’s hands, an illegal act that he should have known was prohibited. He not only yielded a penalty but was given a 10-minute rest in the bin as well.

To his mortification, he had to first witness the All Blacks score a second try — which gave them the lead that they never surrendered again — before he had to listen to referee Jerome Garces’ standard lecture and have a yellow card flashed in his face.

There will also be bad memories for another veteran, Victor Matfield. Matfield, 37, came out to play the last 20 minutes of the game, joining a bunch of South African forwards who had done extremely well in the scrums but seen New Zealand repeatedly pilfer the ball in the lineouts.

Though Matfield did win a couple of lineouts, he lost a crucial throw to young Sam Whitelock, 10 years his junior, with South Africa close to the All Blacks line.

(Incidentally, on the field at the time was Keven Mealamu, who burrowed his way past Matfield when the teams met in the 2003 quarter-final to score the try that sealed New Zealand’s passage into the last four of that tournament.)

Matfield also suffered the ignominy of knocking on in the last play of the game, an act that ended the game, at a time when South Africa needed to run the ball and get it down to the opposite end of the field.

Sri Lanka’s big three may have stayed on too long

It has been said of the great West Indies cricketer Viv Richards that he should have quit the international game two years before he actually did. Richards, who made his debut in India in 1974, retired in 1991, after having been West Indies captain for about six years.

But after 1989, he was never the dominating batsman he had been over his entire career; his reflexes appeared to have slowed, and his temper sometimes got the better of him.

Something similar could be said about the three Sri Lankans — Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and Kumar Sangakkara — who played their last game together on Wednesday, a loss to South Africa in a World Cup quarter-final. For Sangakkara it will be his last one-day game; Jayawardene has already quit Test and T20 cricket so this is his last international game.

Sangakkara is still part of the Test team, as is Dilshan. The latter has expressed a desire to keep playing for a few more years and it remains to be seen whether the crushing defeat by South Africa — by nine wickets, as the Proteas broke their duck in World Cup knockout matches — leads to a change of mind.

Not one could summon up a last-ditch match-winning innings, and in a way it was sad to see the trio collectively scores only 49 runs of which Sangakkara made a painful 45 off 96 balls, an innings totally out of character. Dilshan failed to get off the mark.

It is telling that the three went through the group games without much of a hiccup, with Sangakkara even setting a record by scoring four consecutive centuries. But then, the pressure in those games is a fraction of what it is in the knockout stages.

Both Sangakkara and Jayawardene have produced plenty of match-winning efforts for Sri Lanka over the years, and they even came good last year, taking Sri Lanka to triumph in the World T20. This year was a bridge too far.

When it comes to cricket, Sri Lanka is an unusual country. It has been playing international cricket for just 34 years, yet it has produced a relatively large number of players who have made an indelible impression on the game. Right from Sunil Wettimuny to Duleep Mendis, Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu and Muthiah Muralidaran, there are plenty who have caught the popular imagination.

Given that, there will, undoubtedly, be good players who emerge from the system to emulate Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan. It would have been fitting to see a silken century from either Sangakkara or Jayawardene on Wednesday, or a more brutal effort from Dilshan, and a competitive end to what was expected to be the most fiercely contested of the quarter-finals. But in life as in cricket, the saddest words are “it could have been”.

South Africa will be the real test for Australia

HAVING just come off a 5-0 win over England in the Ashes series Down Under, Australia must be on a high. But, no matter the margin of victory, there are several serious issues to be considered in the run-up to the tour of South Africa that begins in February.

There have been writers who have started comparing the Australian pace attack – only one man has genuine pace – to the West Indies attacks of the 1980s. This is a fanciful comparison and if anyone among those who are involved in selection swallow this myth, then they will be stripped of the illusion in South Africa. While Mitchell Johnson bowled fast and with hostility for most of the series, the other two pacemen, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, are medium-pacers who looked very good against a team that was itself suffering under some big illusions.

When England defeated Australia 3-0 in England in 2013, it began to believe that it was that much superior to Australia. In truth, the actual series outcome should have been 3-2. In the third Test, where much of the final day was lost to rain, England was 3 for 37, chasing 332 for a win. Only 20.3 overs were possible on the final day and it is highly likely that Australia would have won this Test. That would have made the margin 2-1 in favour of England at that stage and could well have meant a different outcome after the next two Tests were played.
Continue reading South Africa will be the real test for Australia

Mandela is dead – as was the Freedom Charter

NELSON Mandela died today. There is much emotion about the place, in countries around the globe, as many regarded him as the freedom fighter’s freedom fighter.

The public tale about him is one of a man who fought to bring equality to a country which had, as its official policy, the doctrine that white was superior to black.

That much is true. But that is only part of the story.
Continue reading Mandela is dead – as was the Freedom Charter

Farewell D’Oliveira, a man who changed the system

BASIL D’Oliveira died on November 19. I remember him because of the fact that he was a principal actor in what was the first international series of cricket which I followed on the radio. Later, when I was much older, I realised the significance of the role that he had played in exposing apartheid for the evil it is.

The year was 1968 and I was 11 years old. Back then Sri Lanka — which was known as Ceylon — was not yet an international cricket-playing country. That would take another 13 years. But the interest in the game was phenomenal, so much so that the local radio station was able to find a sponsor to cover the charges of broadcasting BBC commentary on the Ashes series that year.

Before the series even began, the South African prime minister John Vorster had told Lord Cobham, a past president of the MCC, at that time the body administering the game in England, that if D’Oliveira was selected for the forthcoming tour of South Africa, the tour would be cancelled.

D’Oliveira played in the first Test of that series which Australia won. He made just 9 as England collapsed for 165 — the Ceylon Daily News described it as a case similar to that of cows going to the slaughter — and ceded a lead of 192 to Australia on the first innings.

Facing a victory target of 413, England got to 253 mainly because of D’Oliveira who made an unbeaten 87, and Bob Barber. John Edrich made 38 but the rest of the batting was a shambles.

Funnily, after this, D’Oliveira was made 12th man for the second Test at Lord’s. Shortly before this, the MCC secretary, Billy Griffith, suggested to D’Oliveira that he make himself available for South Africa and not create a problem by being selected for England.

The MCC was thus fully aware that if a coloured South African was able to lay claim to a spot in the England squad for South Africa, there would be some uncomfortable times to be gone through. As an innocent 11-year-old I knew nothing about this – leave alone anything about South Africa’s official system of apartheid.

In August, another attempt was made to prevent any trouble. Tienie Oosthuizen, a top executive in the British branch of Carreras Tobacco, a South African company, made D’Oliveira the offer of a lucrative coaching contract in South Africa. There was a catch – he should refuse to go on the tour.

He was dealing with a man of integrity. D’Oliveira refused the blandishment.

The next three Tests were drawn. In the fifth Test, D’Oliveira returned as Roger Prideaux declared he was unavailable. On the first day, England ran up 272 for 4, with Edrich being the chief contributor, 130 not out. D’Oliveira was not out on 24. The next day, he made a marvellous 158. England won that Test on the final day.

But when the squad for South Africa was announced, D’Oliveira’s name was not there. Then followed a period when unrest dogged the MCC. Various members resigned. The Reverend David Shepherd formed a protest group.

Then came intervention in the shape of providence. Tom Cartwright pulled out of the tour due to injury and, given the public pressure, D’Oliveira was selected as his replacement. Vorster then announced that the tour could not go ahead if D’Oliveira was part of the touring party. The MCC, having tried everything in its armoury to prevent a situation of this kind coming about, cancelled the tour.

The only official cricket tour of South Africa after this was in 1970 when Bill Lawry led an Australia team there for a four-Test series. England cancelled a 1970 tour by South Africa and instead a Rest of the World XI, which included a few South Africans, played a few Tests. In late 1970, the International Cricket Conference suspended official tours of South Africa.

Had D’Oliveira responded to the bribes and not stood on principle, cricket tours would have gone on with the rest of the cricketing nations turning a blind eye to the fact that South Africa was not willing to play black and coloured teams.

One man changed the system.

How Australia beat the Springboks

AUSTRALIAN rugby writers are in the seventh heaven after their national team, the Wallabies, ensured the ouster of the defending champions, South Africa, in the world cup rugby tournament over the weekend.

Australia was behind the Springboks in every possible aspect of the game but still ran out 11-9 winners. In the process of trying to explain this, writers from the Australian side have put forward every possible reason – the relative age of the two teams (Australia had a much younger team), the lack of stragegy on the part of the South Africans, the courage of the Australians, etc etc

Nobody, but nobody, is willing to look at the fact that the presence of a referee from the southern hemisphere played a big role in the Australian win. Not that the referee was one-sided and favoured Australia – no, he had a very good game. But his interpretation of the rules went Australia’s way due to the prevailing circumstances.

Let me explain. In rugby (union, not league), when a person is tackled and goes to ground, the tackler has to release the tackled player. The tackled player has to release the ball and when he does so he positions his body in a manner that protects the ball. His teammates crowd around him to protect the ball so that opposition players cannot get at it. And the opposition also piles in, trying to get hold of the ball. The resulting mass of bodies is known as a ruck.

For a player from the opposition to legally get hold of the ball, he has to be on his feet when trying to wrestle it out. He cannot play the ball when his feet are off the ground. If he does so, then he will be penalised.

But given the mass of bodies, it is extremely difficult for the referee to notice if players are indulging in illegal tactics – for example, some player at the bottom of the ruck may prevent the other side from getting the ball out by holding on to it, something he is not allowed to do. The attacking team will always want to get the ball out as soon as possible in order to prevent the other team from organising its defence.

Experienced referees know that foul play is going on when the ball repeatedly keeps taking a long time to emerge from a ruck. Or when it keeps repeatedly popping out to the team which is defending. They watch and bide their time and, the moment they spot an infringement, they send a player off. Welshman Nigel Owens did this during the quarter-final between Argentina and New Zealand, catching an Argentine player late in the second half.

But the referee for the Australia-South Africa game, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, did not penalise either side for this tactic. And Australia had the upper hand in this department because they have a talented openside flanker, David Pocock, who knows how to slow the ball down and not be caught. South Africa’s specialist in this tactic, Heinrich Brussow, had to unfortunately leave the field with a rib injury even before a quarter of the game was completed.

Had Pocock been pinged – and repeatedly, as he deserved to be – the South African fly-half, Morne Steyn, would have ensured victory for his team by converting the resultant penalties. Steyn is a very accurate kicker from any distance less than 40 metres. Unfortunately for him, two of the penalties that his team was awarded were well beyond his range; the specialist Springboks kicker from longer distances, Francois Steyn, did not play that day as he was injured.

Only English writers have referred to the illegal tactics that Pocock employed because it was apparent that the ball could not be taking so long to emerge from rucks unless someone was keeping it there by illegal means. But it is easy to dismiss their writing as sour grapes because England was beaten in the quarter-finals – and Englishmen like nothing better than to slag off Australia.

This is no slur on Pocock – every team tries this tactic, some are more successful due to the skill of the player involved. The New Zealand skipper, Richie McCaw, is a master at this, even better than Pocock. But he knows his referees well and plays to their likes and dislikes.

In the semi-finals, Australia will come up against New Zealand. The official for the game is South African Craig Joubert who did a marvellous job in the quarter-finals when he controlled the Wales-Ireland game.

If Pocock tries the same tactics that he used successfully against the Springboks, Australia will leak penalties like a sieve. Joubert is a strict disciplinarian; he puts his stamp on the game early and then makes himself more or less invisible. That is a thing that few referees do these days – they love being in the limelight.

Teams from the southern hemisphere know Joubert well and respect him no end. He does not try to be front and centre and make the game all about him. But he comes down like a ton of bricks on infringers. Given this, the same tactics that worked against South Africa will not work for Australia on Sunday.