Secret to Kiwi success isn’t complicated.
The South African who should perhaps be best placed to understand the New Zealand psyche and game believes that a comment made by All Black fullback Ben Smith earlier in the week best encapsulates the difference between the rugby played by the two countries.
Told that it might rain on Saturday at Kings Park when the All Blacks and the Springboks clash in the final Castle Lager Rugby Championship test match of 2016, Smith said that it didn’t matter what the conditions were.
“We are equipped to play the game that will be required for those conditions if we have to,” said Smith.
Former Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford spent a month earlier this year working in both the Hurricanes and Highlanders camp in their build-up to Super Rugby. His long association with Hurricanes assistant John Plumtree at the Sharks, where he also worked with Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd for a while, gave him his in with the team that went on to win the competition.
And his relationship with Tony Brown, now a coach at the Hurricanes, who he coached at the Sharks, plus his friendship with Jamie Joseph, saw him also get access to the Highlanders as they started out the new season as the reigning champions. Currently away on a short spot coaching stint in Japan, Bashford made the trip to New Zealand in February to upskill and educate himself in preparation for what he hopes will be a return to top level professional coaching at some stage.
“I don’t think I’m arrogant in suggesting I might be better placed to understand New Zealand rugby than most South Africans as I spent many years working with Plumtree and I am also close to Mitch (John Mitchell),” Bashford told Supersport.com from Tokyo this week.
“But I wanted to find out more and Plum was eager for me to come over and sample a bit of the Hurricanes culture and the way they do things. I was with them on their pre-season camp, and the Highlanders also opened their doors to me. I was involved in all their meetings and team reviews. They made it possible for me to go in there and learn off them. And it was an eye-opener.”
The former Sharks assistant, who had to part ways with the union when Plumtree was effectively sacked in 2013, believes South Africans get it wrong when they refer to a specific New Zealand way of playing.
“I think everything I say to you now can really be summed up by what Ben Smith said. That is it 100 percent. The All Blacks and the Kiwi franchise teams don’t have a specific way of playing, they just ensure that they are skilled in a way that will enable them to play the game that is demanded of them on the day.”
Bashford agrees that the penny dropped for the Kiwis after their 3-0 defeat to South Africa during the 2009 Tri-Nations, and warns that South African coaches should neglect the old strengths of this country’s game at their peril as the New Zealanders put in a lot of time perfecting aspects that used to be the staple of South Africa.
“The actual training sessions aren’t that much different to the South African training sessions. They do the same things as us, or certainly what we used to do at the Sharks,” said Bashford.
“It was the attention that was put into minor detail that was different about the Highlanders and Hurricanes. The detail that the Highlanders players put into working on their core skills after their training sessions was astonishing. Malakai Fekitoa is a wonderfully skilled player and an X-factor player, as we know, but it doesn’t just happen for him. He’d spend hours working on his punch passing, Ben Smith would do the same with catching contestable kicks.
“It seemed to me that the Kiwis when I was there were always working on their extras, and putting much more effort in compared to what I was used to in South Africa on working on the things that make them special. They pay attention to the absolute basics of the game, the core skills that are needed, and that is what makes them able to do what Smith is talking about.
“It is a misconception that the New Zealanders just run from anywhere. The Hurricanes and Highlanders kick more than anyone. But the difference between them and us is that kicking is never a specific plan, it is not the game plan. Its an option. They kick if it is on to run. Kicking is part of the plan but not THE plan.
“One of the biggest areas where they have taken the game to the next level is the skill levels of their forwards. Dane Coles’ long pass that set up a try against the Boks in Christchurch didn’t surprise me. That is something the Kiwis work on.
“I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but from what I understand it all started with Wayne Smith. Probably about 15 years ago. The All Blacks decided they wanted to be more expansive, but realised they didn’t have the skills to carry out the plan they envisaged. From that day they started to work on the skills that were needed and now it is coming good for them.”
The sense you get from that is that there is a co-ordinated effort across all the systems in New Zealand that there just isn’t in South Africa. Every Bok coach complains about lack of support and unified planning from the systems in South Africa, and Bashford saw evidence when in New Zealand of how efficiently run the Kiwi system is.
“On the second day of the Hurricanes’ camp in Gisborne the All Black forwards coach Mike Cron flew in to have extensive one-on-ones with the Hurricanes All Blacks. He spent a lot of time with those guy reviewing their performances at the World Cup. It was time consuming but whether they liked it or not, the Hurricanes coaches had to put up with it because that is part of the deal in New Zealand.
“Unfortunately I don’t think we are going to be able to catch up if we continue to allow players to play outside of the country and still be eligible for the Boks. The New Zealand system allows them to look at and monitor all the All Blacks and control everything that happens with that player. Beauden Barrett could probably name whatever number he wants an overseas club to pay him and they’d give it to him. But he won’t because he wants to play for the All Blacks and he knows he can’t if he is overseas.
“And having all the players in the country is what gives the All Blacks their other main advantage over the rest. They are fitter and stronger than the players from the other countries. Against Wales this year some of the matches were close until the 60th minute and then the All Blacks ran away with it, and that has been repeated a couple of times now in the Championship.
“Over there the players are 24/7 under the New Zealand or All Black banner. The central contracting system allows the All Black conditioning coach to be in constant communication with the training coaches at the franchises. It’s why Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were able to peak at the World Cup after being mediocre during Super Rugby.”
The bottom line though, according to Bashford, is that the New Zealand system is focussed on producing players that can play any type of game that suits a particular challenge.
“Their attention on skills means they can implement any game plan that is needed. If there is space behind the line, they will kick into that space, if there is space on the edge they will pass into that space,” said Bashford.
“At the end of a session in South Africa you see the players grabbing balls and going out and kicking, but in New Zealand there is a lot of one on one work. They work on beating a man, on evasion, delaying the start of a defender, pushing a player to the corner on defence. They are far more comfortable when in a one-on-one situation during a match because they work on it in training.”
- Grant Bashford