Analysing Bok and England evolution
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: When Rassie Erasmus was first appointed South Africa coach in early 2018, the first call he made was to his most trusted right-hand man, defence coach Jacques Nienaber.
As he puts it, Erasmus’ job was to restore credibility to the Springboks brand, one which had suffered in a series of record defeats throughout 2016 and 2017.
He first took charge just months after a 0-57 loss against New Zealand and a dismal 3-38 defeat against Ireland.
“We’ve been under pressure to redeem ourselves over the past few years,” said Erasmus. ”
“Back in 2016 and 2017, almost every team we played gave us a hiding. When we came together in early 2018, we were trying to get that respect back.”
So Erasmus turned to his old friend Nienaber.
The pair have a deep bond which goes back to their days in the army, and later as colleagues across the professional rugby world from the Free State Cheetahs to Munster.
Quite simply, his job was to patch up the Springboks’ leaky defence into one which could keep even the best attacking sides at bay, and he had 18 months in which to do it.
In the months that followed, the transformation has been remarkable. While other teams have looked to add invention to their attacking phase play, South Africa have focused on becoming one of the most well-drilled teams in world rugby.
Their game is based largely around a powerful pack who roam the gain line, determined to win collisions in both attack and defence, as well as dominating set-pieces.
It has paid huge dividends.
To illustrate the difference Nienaber has made, in 2016 the Springboks shipped 329 points in their 12 matches at an average of more than 27 per game.
So far in 2019, they have conceded a mere 126 in 11 tests – an average of just over 11 a match, fewer than any other team at the World Cup.
Indeed, if you list the teams who have conceded the fewest points on average across tests in 2019, it is clear that the old adage rings true: defences win championships.
The four semifinalists – South Africa, England, New Zealand and Wales – occupy the top four spots, and South Africa and England are the top two.
While England has always held considerable attacking potency over the course of Eddie Jones’ tenure, the introduction of a series of key defensive weapons has transformed their fortunes over the past year and a half.
During the 2018 Six Nations – in which England finished fifth after defeats by Scotland, France and Ireland, shipping 92 points in total – none of Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Tom Curry or Sam Underhill featured.
Over the past year, Curry, in particular, has proven himself to be indispensable while Underhill has been one of the standout performers of this World Cup.
It was also after that disappointing Six Nations effort that Jones appointed John Mitchell, for the former All Blacks coach, as defence coach – a role he has performed so well he has had his contract extended.
The gradual introduction of that quartet has played a key role in making England devilishly difficult to break down.
So far in 2019, they have conceded an average of just 13.6 points per game compared to nearly 19 in 2018, and 17 in 2017.
Those small improvements have made all the difference in transforming his team into the world-beating outfit who have been so imperious over the past six weeks.
South Africa defence
South Africa 19-16 Wales: Tackles 147; Tackles missed 11 – 93 percent success rate
South Africa 26-3 Japan: Tackles 148; Tackles missed 20 – 88 percent success rate
South Africa 66-7 Canada: Tackles 68; Tackles missed 17 – 80 percent success rate
South Africa 49-3 Italy: Tackles 112; Tackles missed 17 – 87 percent success rate
South Africa 57-3 Namibia: Tackles 77; Tackles missed nine – 90 percent success rate
South Africa 13-23 New Zealand: Tackles 108; Tackles missed 35 – 76 percent success rate
England 19-7 New Zealand: Tackles 147; Missed tackles 34 – 81 percent success rate
England 40-16 Australia: Tackles 193; Tackles missed 21 – 90 percent success rate
England 39-10 Argentina: Tackles 108; Missed tackles 17 – 86 percent success rate
England 45-7 United States: Tackles 61; Missed tackles 18 – 77 percent success rate
England 35-3 Tonga: Tackles 128; Tackles missed 19 – 87 percent tackle success rate