Looking back over the past weekend’s 1st XV rugby results, there were some interesting scores: Kearsney’s 29-10 win over Clifton was expected, while Northwood drew their second game in succession, finishing 14-14 against Maritzburg College. Hilton’s 14-10 defeat of Glenwood, while a very big result for the Midlands’ boys, was not totally unexpected. What really stood out, though, was Westville’s 52-7 dismantling of DHS.
DHS has produced some very good rugby and some very good teams in the recent past, so to see them beaten by 45 points was surprising and quite shocking. KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan caught up with Westville’s coaches, Jeremy McLaren and Njabulo “Jubs” Zulu at the school on Tuesday, to find out more about the Westville 1st XV of 2020.
Saturday’s game was a late start to the season for the Griffins. They had been scheduled to kick things off the previous Saturday against Hilton College, but that game was called off due to concerns over the coronavirus, stemming from a positive result on the test of a Hilton local. Instead, Westville held some internal trials. Then, on Saturday, it was time for their first outing against DHS. Down 0-7 early on, the home side rallied to run up 52 unanswered points.
“We were quite amazed by the fitness levels in our first game,” coach McLaren admitted. But that level of performance and the impressive victory, he revealed, were a number of years in the making.
“It’s a journey that we started two years back, when Jubs and I started here. A few things were not in place and we will never forget that our match against DHS here was 60-10 against us. We had about 19 injuries! We went through a process where we had to get things back in line.
“Last year, we had control of that game as well, but we let it slip. This year, we knew we had to get it right and it would all fall into place. But it is a special group.”
There has been talk that this year’s Westville 1st XV is a top unit but, McLaren added, “There is also so much work that has had to go into it. There was a lack of a lot of knowledge and certain skill levels [when we started with them].
One big decision that the coaching team made has proved to be a masterstroke. They moved Mambo Mkhize from eighthman to centre and in 2019 he turned out for KZN Schools in the midfield.
Jubs explained that he had heard criticism from others that Mkhize was not assertive enough in his ball carrying. But those people, who didn’t know Mkhize as well as Zulu does, were not giving recognition to his other skills, like his soft hands and cover defence.
“He doesn’t want to assert himself, he wants to put other people into space,” Zulu explained.
Westville star Mambo Mkhize made the switch from eighthman to centre with devastating results for opposing teams. (Photo: Martin Ashworth)
When he and McLaren discussed moving Mkhize to centre, they took on advice from someone who had previously done something along those lines with great success. “We called Mzwakhe Nkosi, who is the KES coach. He did a similar thing with a player, Yanga Hlalu, who played SA Schools (2017).
“He moved him from flank to centre. I asked him what the things were that made him certain that Yanga would work as a centre and he said he’s got the skill set and the vision. So why not do it? We did it.”
“The critics that count now see Mambo asserting himself. We’re happy with his development,” Zulu said. There is even talk that Mkhize is one of the front-runners for selection for the SA Schools team.
Successful sides require not only the leadership of their coaches, but leadership from within and that hasn’t been difficult to come by in this year’s line-up.
“We’ve got quite a lot of seniors in the group, especially in the backs,” Zulu said. “We are fortunate to have a lot of guys who were in grade 11 last year, so they would have learnt a lot. They drive a lot of what we do and they’re really excited to be in this position. They are really confident guys.”
The team environment (and it is encouraged) is hardly what one associates with a top rugby side. Zulu explained: “We’ve got quite a unique team. We are not the traditional team. If you saw our warm-up, there’s music and laughter, whereas a lot of teams that I have worked with are very serious and focus on needing to be psyched up.
“We’re completely the opposite. The guys are talking, there’s a vibe and laughter.
“I think we’re confident, but we’re being true to ourselves. A lot of the characters that we have in our team are very jovial, fun-loving guys.”
He recalled how when Westville played Michaelhouse in 2019 there was a very serious vibe about the side and that had the coaches worried ahead of the start of the match. It showed on the field as Michaelhouse outplayed Westville.
“We saw it coming because the energy was off that week. We know the kind of team and characters that we have, so we need to embrace it.”
The McLaren/Zulu coaching team also promotes a game that features flair. “Ever since Jubs and I connected as coaching partners, it was always about taking the risks,” McLaren admitted.
“We came up with a slogan of being wild at heart, because that is how we’ve been created. We want to take chances.
“I will never forget, last year we played Kearsney on our Old Boys’ Day and Carlo Del Fava, the ex-Italian international, was helping with our forwards. Our boys were inside our goal area and Jubs and I said ‘let’s go’ and Carlo looked at us and said ‘guys, you’re crazy’. To cut a long story short, we went and scored in the corner on the other side.
“For us, it’s a basic thing that you play what you see. We’ve been in trouble, with people that know the game questioning why we don’t kick. But that’s not our philosophy. We want them to have fun and we keep saying to them that the only mistake that they can make is the one that they don’t fix. Even international players make mistakes.”
Fitness is key for such an approach to work, but that, too, is not done simply with a traditional focus on running.
“[Fitness] has always got to do with a game that they play,” McLaren stated. “When Jubs does defence, it’s quite a lot of running, like a shuttle, forward and back. Our conditioning programme is not just big weights. It is all multi-functional stuff to enable us to play that type of game.
“The biggest thing is we try to make the boys think for themselves. We give them options to play and they choose.
“We definitely play a running brand of rugby. If you close us down, we’ll use a kicking game. If you don’t close us down, we will run at you.”
Having a promising season nipped in the bud, McLaren admits, has been a real downer. “We’re depressed, but you can’t do anything about it.
“This is one of the better teams, if not the best team, that Westville would have produced. I am not saying that a future team won’t be at this level, but this is a special group.”
He then ran off the very challenging schedule that Westville was supposed to have played: “We would have played Framesby now, which is a good side. Queen’s College is different. We’re going to try and rescheduled Affies. At the Kearsney Easter Festival, we had EG Jansen, HTS Drostdy and HTS Middelburg.” That’s a list that reveals a fear of no one.
Joy and celebration for Westville in their 52-7 win over DHS. (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/westvilleboyshighschool/)
“We had already done our homework and we worked out that within that space of time, those physical games, who would go where and Jubs has a good idea of who would be our back-up flyhalf, because that was a big problem for us, if we lost our 10. But now our other one is just as good.
Ruefully, he concluded: “It feels like you’re in this movie and you want it to end now.”
Having served up a tasty and entertaining teaser with their superb display against DHS, here’s hoping we get to see the Westville 1st XV of 2020 have more opportunities to show off their skills.