How the Springboks shut down the All Blacks' attack
ANALYSIS: The All Blacks were restricted to just 16 points compared to 34 on the same ground in the corresponding fixture last year.
This is a simple indication that this Springbok side is a much better defensive side.
However more specifically, when faced with the same situations they handled them much better this year. They showed improved defensive awareness as a unit based on lessons learned and adapted much quicker to shut down the attack with relentless high-line pressure.
Fool me once
The All Blacks seem to like to use specific ‘21’ patterns from the lineout against the Springboks, designed to create mismatches with speedsters like Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie on third phase switches.
Much of these plays are spearheaded around using a ‘skinny’ option playoff the flyhalf on the first phase to set up the first ruck, before carrying around the corner to use two-thirds of the width of the field.
The ‘skinny’ play relies on short passing in tight space to target the 10-12 channel or sometimes the 12-13 using the backdoor wing option.
In last year’s test, Beauden Barrett plays Rieko Ioane out the back who crashes into wing Jesse Kriel (playing centre at this stage), while Ryan Crotty (12) offers a late support line.
Again on Saturday, the All Blacks started their lineout starter plays with the same move.
With Sonny Bill Williams (12) and Rieko Ioane (11) presenting big, strong ball carriers, the All Blacks have a high chance of reaching the gain line and punching through with momentum using this play.
If the call is a ‘21’ pattern, a pod of three will come around the corner on the second phase to set up the ‘axis’ ruck from which the switch will occur on the third phase.
A tell that shows the All Blacks are setting up for a strike on the later phases is the 10 on the ‘skinny’ play often plays the pass a touch early. He can’t risk ball-playing too late and getting tackled as he tends to have a key role to play later on. If he is put on the ground it can throw everything out.
In ’21’ plays, often he needs to be used as bait to lure the defence over or he is used as the key switch runner tacking across the field. If he is out of position because he’s pinned to the ground it throws a spanner in the works.
Last year, the Springboks were guilty of overcommitting after the second phase carry.
Just as Damian McKenzie (23) and Beauden Barrett (10) appear to move towards the left side, a host of Boks fold around the corner to defend the other side.
The All Blacks catch them short on a double-screen pass play and only last-ditch cover defence stops McKenzie scoring in the corner.
Early in the first half the All Blacks set-up a multi-phase raid attacking the same edge with a similar ’21’ switch play installed on the third phase.
This time Richie Mo’unga (10) hits Williams (12) with a short pass on the first phase ‘skinny’ play.
Even before the carry around the corner comes on the second phase, centre Lukhanyo Am (13) has diagnosed the pattern unfolding and calls for defenders to stay on the far side.
Kieran Read (8) takes the carry followed by a host of support players while Am is still scanning with eyes up. We can see Beauden Barrett (15) slowly beginning his path back across for the switch.
Often the difficulty with identifying these plays is the ‘picture’ the defence sees doesn’t come into focus until the last second.
The players involved in the first ‘skinny’ play are all on the ground, with only Codie Taylor stationed out wide. For Eben Etzebeth (4) and Faf de Klerk (9), they see empty space in front of them.
It is easy for the defence to ignore this side of the field and fold. However, in less than a second, the players on the ground will re-load, Barrett will time his run, and all the pieces will fall into place.
As the re-loading starts to take place, Am (13) is now 100% sure what is happening and signals for his forwards to stay put.
Am jumps up and down whilst screaming instructions over, which are adhered to. The Springboks re-load the defence on the far side with solid numbers to counter the switch.
The All Blacks use the flat two-man clearing pod to get faster width, with TJ Perenara (9) feeding Sonny Bill Williams directly out behind.
Williams (12) tries to play Barrett (15) behind Taylor on a screen pass, but it doesn’t come together well enough and Pollard (10) makes a good read, rushing up to force Barrett back inside and shuts down the play.
Faf de Klerk also has Rieko Ioane covered on the outside and the All Blacks are unable to create an overlap to exploit.
The ‘comms’ from Lukhanyo Am is an integral part of the Springboks ability to shut this down effectively, seen below at the bottom right of the screen.
Last week against Argentina we saw the All Blacks move completely away from a commonly used 1-3-3-1 pod system, using a two-man clearing pod to move the ball away from the high-pressure zone closest to the ruck.
It was the frequency with which they used this system, one which they have used before, that surprised. The All Blacks used it close to 100% of the time in a massive change geared towards creating more free-flowing rugby.
They continued with that approach against the Springboks but the visitors came prepared using subtle changes to combat it.
Workhorse flanker and unsung hero of last year’s win, Pieter-Steph Du Toit, was often found patrolling the midfield channel, rather than in close next to the ruck.
As the All Blacks flushed the ball past the first clearout pod, Du Toit was able to bring pressure from the middle consistently without fail.
He was constantly up in the face of the attack, forcing the playback inside at times as passing lanes were blocked.
The Springboks successfully prevented the All Blacks getting the ball past the rush defence in the middle third to the open space wider.
When it did, it often became static ball due to the work of players like Jesse Kriel and Cheslin Kolbe jamming in hard to pressure players receiving offloads.
Late in the second half, they started to drop off under fatigue as the All Blacks’ play started to make in-roads, but they were still able to hold on.
Kieran Read respected the Boks enough to take points on offer, instead of testing them with the driving maul which worked well in both tests last year.
The Springboks aggressive defence looked much more assured this time round, which in the end delivered a historically good output. The 16 points scored is the third-lowest at home under Steve Hansen’s watch, and the sixth-lowest considering away tests as well.
This should please Rassie Erasmus as he knows that pressure-cooker World Cup games aren’t going to be decided by tries and a smart, hard-working defensive unit can be the cornerstone of a championship side.
His side is still on the up and making rapid improvements towards becoming one.
By Ben Smith, Rugbypass