I switched on the game between South Africa and Namibia the other night with no great relish. It was always going to be a non contest, a reversion to those World Cup massacres of years gone past. And so it was. But in the midst of the ennui, there were a few moments that kept jolting my off my chest. A couple of players were actually sidestepping.
Gio Aplon and Francois Hougaard are not the biggest blokes in the South Africa squad, which may just be the reason why they have to use their feet to beat someone. Okay, it wasn’t quite Gerald Davies. Anyone who watched TGR play in the seventies will know just how beautiful the sidestep could be. Gerald could send a butterfly the wrong way.
But it was still something to see, because there are so few genuine sidesteppers still about. I am not talking about the plonking foot placers and weight shifters, I am talking about the real jinkers. Shane Williams can still move, but how many others can you think of who can shift a whole defence with their movement.
When this World Cup is over we will get one of our top coaches or players to go through the sidestep because it is one of the most beautiful sights of rugby. The great Barbarians try against New Zealand in 1973 was initiated by Phil Bennett’s sidesteps.
But over the years it has become a rarer and rarer sight. The other day I was having a glass of red wine with Danie Gerber, the great South African centre, and he said he had never seen Bryan Habana actually beat a man. This is the top try scorer in South African history. He had seen him score through pace, or through an interception or a chip ahead. But he had never seen him set a defender up.
Think of the wings at this World Cup. How many of them can actually set up a defender. There is much to admire about Tommy Bowe, but wings of past years would be in agony about his failure to score a try at the end of the match against Australia. He only had to stop the covering James O’Connor – a kid who can step: so can Digby Ioane and Drew Mitchell. What is it about the Aussies? – with his feet, but he ploughed on and was bundled into touch.
The great Jonah has much to answer for. Lomu actually was a better stepper than many imagine, but he really emphasised the developing vogue for power. How much easier it is to coach a big bloke at junior level who gets over the gain line with predictable monotony but rarely busts open the game.
Look at the French these days. The last tango in Paris seems to be decades ago now. Where have all the dancers gone? Could the current squad score a try from the end of the earth?
If I could have one wish for rugby it would be to halt the threatened extinction of the Shane Williams and Conrad Smiths of this world. Smaller men who really know how to step and pass.
There are too many piano shifters about these days, not enough pianists.