ANALYSIS: Boks play better without the ball
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP SPOTLIGHT: South Africa’s two-match winning streak in the Southern Hemisphere championship can be linked to the fact that they have reverted to a brawn-based game.
Physicality has always been a Springbok hallmark, but it was not very evident in the early stages of the Championship.
After a fluky (34-21) win over Argentina in Durban in Round One, it started to unravel for Rassie Erasmus’ Boks in Mendoza a week later – a 19-32 loss.
It went from bad-to-worse in Week Three, where the Boks suffered an 18-23 loss to Australia in an execrable match.
However, the tables were turned when the Boks – against all odds – beat the All Blacks (36-34) in Wellington.
It was followed by a 23-12 win over the Wallabies in Port Elizabeth this past weekend.
The golden thread in all of this is the number of tackles the Boks made and the amount of possession they had.
While many pundits will point to the Springboks’ game management as the biggest problem – given the amount of possession they have kicked away in the last two weeks – it, in fact, appears to be a deliberate tactic.
It may well be that the players are finally beginning to understand the defensive system that coach Rassie Erasmus and his right-hand man Jacques Nienaber are employing.
The duo was at the heart of the Stormers’ most successful period in Super Rugby and it is not a surprise the demise of the Cape Town franchise coincided with their departure.
During the two years preceding Erasmus and Nienaber’s arrival at the Boks, South Africa employed four different defence coaches.
The sloppy defence in the first three round of the Rugby Championship – as well as the June series against England – may have been a hangover from the Allister Coetzee era.
However, in the last two rounds of the competition, it appears there is a more coherent approach from the Boks.
To put this into perspective, let us have a look at the numbers.
In Round One South Africa carried the ball as much as Argentina – 412 times. They kicked marginally more (27 times to 20 times) and made fewer tackles (147 to 153), as they shaded the possession. They won 34-21.
In Mendoza, in Round Two the Boks had far more possession – 61 percent to 39 percent. They made 169 carries to 91, kicked just 18 times in play to 21, and made just 90 tackles compared to the 169 of Los Pumas. Argentina outscored the Boks by four tries to three and won 32-19.
In Brisbane in Round Three the statistics were pretty even – both teams having 50 percent of the possession. Australia made 100 carries to South Africa’s 98. The Wallabies kicked 12 times in play and the Springboks 13 times. The teams scored two tries each and Australia won 23-18 in a game with an astronomical error rate.
Then came the dramatic about turn.
The Springboks kicked a lot more and their tackle stats went through the roof.
In Wellington, New Zealand had 75 percent of the possession to South Africa’s 25 percent. The All Blacks made just 61 tackles, compared to the 235 of the Boks. Their tackle success rate was not very different – the Kiwis missed 12 tackles for a success rate of 84 and the Boks missed 39 (86 percent success rate).
The All Blacks carried the ball 215 times, while the Boks had just 59 carries. The Boks kicked 15 times in play, a rather enormous amount – given the little possession they had. While All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett had a bad day at the office, succeeding with only 33 percent of his kicks at goal, it was the pressure applied on defence that won the Boks a staggering nine turnovers.
New Zealand outscored South Africa by six tries to five, but the Springboks won 36-32.
That was again evident this past weekend between South African and Australia, in round five match in Port Elizabeth.
The Wallabies had 60 percent of the possession, made 122 carries to the Boks’ 74. South Africa made almost double the number of tackles that Australia did – 144 to 74. The Boks kicked 19 times in play (again a big number, considering their limited possession stats) and the Wallabies kicked 14 times.
As was the case in Wellington, in PE this past weekend the big Bok bruisers produced the most telling tackle stats.
In Wellington Pieter-Steph du Toit and Franco Mostert made 24 tackles each, followed by Warren Whiteley’s 20.
In Port Elizabeth, Du Toit was again top of the pops with 17 tackles, followed by Mostert and Andre Esterhuizen (13 each).
Du Toit has made a tournament-high of 78 tackles, at a rate of 16 tackles per match. He is followed by Mostert and Argentina’s Marcos Kremer (58) at almost 12 tackles a match.
South Africa is using scrumhalf Francois de Klerk as their main man for executing their kicks in play. This past weekend he made 11 kicks compared to flyhalf Handre Pollard’s five.
It is obviously a tactic to ensure those high bombs are contestable and the Bok defenders can pile on the pressure.
Now that the Boks have their defence sorted, perhaps that can put a bit more work into understanding assistant coach Swys de Bruin’s attacking systems.
But for now the ‘brawn over brain’ is working.
By Jan de Koning