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Getting technical: Defence with John McFarland
As probably the only specialist defensive coach in the country, John McFarland performs sterling work for the Blue Bulls as is evidenced by their record of conceding the least tries in the Currie Cup competition so far.

McFarland is in charge of the defensive structures for the senior as well as the under-20 sides and it is for this reason that juniors find it so easy to move through the ranks as every team plays according to the same structures. In addition, McFarland is also in charge of teaching the hookers and scrumhalves their individual throwing and passing skills.

McFarland started his career with London Irish with none less than Clive Woodward and Dick Best. It is here where he met Brenden Venter, who became player / coach of the club. His technical prowess was made known to Blue Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer, who was assisting the Springboks, by Venter and Meyer drafted McFarland to help with technical analysis for their World Cup 1999 campaign. So impressed was Meyer with McFarland that he brought him back to assist the Bulls with video analysis in 2000.

As a vital cog in the wheel of the stampeding Blue Bulls machine, McFarland has the highest praise for head coach Heyneke Meyer. “Heyneke is probably the most enlightened coach in South Africa. He acknowledges the specialist areas in the modern game and addresses them with equal care.”

One outstanding characteristic of the entire Blue Bulls coaching staff is their eagerness to acquire new skills. McFarland recently had the opportunity to broaden his horizons by attending a coaches’ conference in Australia where he managed to watch the Wallabies and some league sides train. “I was especially impressed with their attention to detail,” says McFarland. “I returned with a few new ideas.

“It is true that we can learn a lot from the Aussies, but they could learn from us as well. The influence of league is very apparent in the Australian game. Defence is such a vital part of the league game that a lot more time is devoted to it compared to the fifteen man code. Attention is given to defensive lines, technique and individual skills. We are trying to instil the same attitude towards defence here at the Blue Bulls.”

McFarland agrees that the correct attitude is vital for good defence. “We have all the systems in place and these become second nature to the players due to coaching and repetition, but it is attitude that brings about execution.

“We take tremendous pride in our defence and in both our Currie Cup victories in the last two seasons we had the best defensive record in the competition. Heyneke Meyer always says that attack puts bums on seats but defence wins championships.”

McFarland points out that South Africa does not have to stand back for any team in the world as far as the technical aspects of the game goes and this season the Springboks were world leaders with their rush defence.

“This season the emphasis has changed to line speed on defence and the Boks were the leaders in this field. Because of the success of the defensive line, there was a positive influence filtering through the team. Defence won the Tri-Nations this year.

“Rush defence has its flaws because an attacking player can sidestep a rushing player more easily, but it is up to the defenders to make the system work. You need players who can make quick foot adjustments with their feet and Marius Joubert and De Wet Barry can certainly do this.

“Each team must vary their defensive tactics to suit the players in the team and hence the Blue Bulls’ defensive system differs from the Springboks. Another secret is to vary the defensive pattern to not become predictable.”

McFarland also takes great pride in his other responsibility at the Blue Bulls: teaching the hookers and scrumhalves their individual skills. Since arriving in Pretoria, the Blue Bulls have produced two new Springboks at scrumhalf and last year the hookers for the Springboks, SA under-21’s and SA under-19’s all hailed from the Blue Bulls’ stables.

Other articles by John McFarland
  • A challenge Boks can overcome

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