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.