The beauty of the off-load

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SA sides yet to join the off-load revolution

I used to play for a junior cricket side organised by my then-dentist. We had an eclectic bunch of players that included the son of a Constitutional Court judge, a former pro soccer coach, a man who should have played cricket for South Africa and a motley collection of others.

The dentist recruited us at his work while we sat with our mouths open and when our resistance was at its weakest. Who could refuse to play?

Years later, at the King Commission into match-fixing in cricket, I recognised, on television, another of my erstwhile teammates. Marlon Aronstam, the man who offered Hansie Cronje money for “charity” and a leather jacket to make a game of the infamous Centurion Test, was another of our gallant band.

I hasten to add that he never offered us any filthy lucre to throw games. In fact, we won most of ours.

One abiding memory of the King proceedings was when the aforementioned Aronstam said at one stage, when he was on the stand: “Off the record, Judge…” It was hilarious because of course, the proceedings were live on TV, not just to South Africa, but to the whole world! Every time I hear the phrase, the memory comes back with a laugh.

It came back to haunt this week. I had the pleasure to MC a function with two Springboks and a famous coach in front of a live gathering. To elevate the discussion, with judicial authority, I placed the proceedings off the record. It was like a magic wand in terms of relaxing the guests of honour. The result was a fascinating and candid hour in which the panel gave us insights into the workings and challenges of the modern game of rugby.

This column could have captivated you with many of them as much was as surprising as it was informative.

The difficulties in winning rugby games today are formidable, but perhaps the modern czars can also learn just a bit from the past. The trouble is that the idiot of an MC made it off the record. Dammit. What could have been!

One area of the modern game that fascinates me is the off-load. It was for years a skill practised and perfected in Rugby League. Early on in games, possession and, to a lesser degree, position is everything. As such, players go through their limited phases of having the ball with but one thought in mind: not to lose it.

It is bump and bash and take the tackle and recycle with that curious, almost effeminate back heel they employ. It all looks so boring and predictable but, of course, it is energy-sapping.

Then, with no obvious signal given, suddenly players start off-loading in tackles. Where they would have gone to ground, they now start to off-load with both hands or even with one. Who decides? It is high-risk, high-return, sure, but suddenly the practise is not only tolerated by the vocal coaches but encouraged, nay, demanded.

Clearly a moment is reached where energy levels have dropped to the point where gaps now exist in the line and can be exploited via a skilful off-load. All it takes is that one unpredictable action to unsettle the defence momentarily and the resultant uncertainty can be exploited with fast and good attacking back-up. This is when our cousin of XIII can be spectacular.

It has now worked its way into Union. The All Blacks use it from the first whistle but other sides use it sparingly, if at all. In the southern hemisphere it is more prevalent but this is mainly due to the Kiwis.

Why is it not used more in the game in general? One of the problems is that, unlike for most of its history, all 15 players tackle today. Lood de Jager made 19 tackles in one Test recently. Nineteen from a lock? That’s more than the great Louis Moolman and Willie John McBride made in their careers.

Defences are king today and coaches constantly search for ways to defeat them. The answer is there all the time. The off-load is the perfect solution as it uses the defence of the opponent to tee it up. Even Kiwi coaches in the Six Nations seem to avoid the practice as the risks of mistake are seen to outweigh the advantages. Why is a mystery.

A skills revolution is needed in South Africa if we are to compete. Clearly, our traditional strengths of physical superiority and direct running are no longer enough. The All Blacks showed this in the World Cup. But where should such a revolution start? At grass roots level, of course, but also at the top by incorporating skills that can open up defences as easily as possible.

The off-load is the most obvious example as it is tried and trusted and can bear instant fruit. Yes, it will take practice and a change of mindset but we need that anyway.

Will we see the off-load embraced by any of our Super Rugby sides? If not, we are missing a trick. This is on the record.

*Robbie hosts the breakfast show from 6-9am, weekdays, on 702.

Original source: The beauty of the off-load

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