The key areas NZ need to focus on to beat Boks
SPOTLIGHT: The All Blacks will need to focus on three key areas if they are to defeat the Springboks in the Rugby Championship over the coming weeks.
That’s according to former All Blacks hooker James Parsons, who has pinpointed South Africa’s set-piece, maul defence and ability at the breakdown as three of the biggest threats New Zealand must address when the two nations play each other.
Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons spoke particularly highly of the South African set-piece, which he said was a focal point in their 29-10 Rugby Championship victory over Los Pumas in Gqeberha last week.
The former two-Test international narrowed in on South Africa’s line-out work against Argentina, which led to their second try scored by hooker Malcolm Marx from the back of a rolling maul.
Parsons highlighted that the Springboks usually throw to the middle and back on attacking line-outs, which forces the opposition forward pack to turn around and join the ensuing maul from an angle that pushes the South African forwards towards the posts.
Parsons noted that once the Argentine forward pack realised that, three players – Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti – detached from the blindside of the maul to apply pressure on the opposite side in a bid to stop the Springboks from approaching the posts.
However, the Springboks instantly applied pressure on the undermanned side of the maul, resulting in a change of direction from the rolling maul and allowing Marx, with the help of some teammates, to plough through and score virtually unchallenged.
“They normally win the ball middle-back, which is half the battle, and if they can do that, they can almost start heading towards the goalpost in a sense,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“That’s what they did, because all that pressure coming from the Argy forwards is almost coming from the side and pushing them towards that corner.
“What the Springboks did so well on Marx’s try is they utilised that pressure from then to head towards the post.
“Then, if you watch in the replay, two or three Argy players bail out of that position and try to come back in from the back and stop it and the Springboks just sheared back to where they’d come from, so they utilised that pressure again to help them get their momentum.
“Once they’d left that spot, there was almost no one in front of them and it’s an easy try, but they’re patient, they win the ball in great areas, and then once they set, they work together almost like a scrum.
“They work together as eight. They’ve all got a role to play and they’re all prepared to play that role, and they feel it. They’re so good at feeling where that pressure is coming from to use that to their advantage rather than fight against it.”
Parsons said that while that cohesion and efficiency amongst South Africa’s forward pack at the set-piece is one of their biggest strengths, there is a way the All Blacks can defend it.
By sacking the line-out – when the defending team tackles the line-out receiver as soon as they land on the ground and before they are bound onto by their teammates – the option for a rolling maul is nipped at the bud.
A line-out sack differs from an illegally collapsed maul in that the ball carrier, or line-out receiver, is tackled before they are bound onto by their teammates and before the supporting defenders make contact with the opposition players to help form the maul.
Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that former All Blacks captain Kieran Read sacked the South African line-out superbly during their clash at the 2019 World Cup, and that it could be a tactic deployed by New Zealand again this year.
“The one thing about the back ball, if you’re good at sacking, it’s probably best to sack it, because you’re not going to be able to get the numbers around and come from the angle you want because all your numbers are stacked to that front-middle because you’re trying to defend the line-out first and foremost,” he said.
“Kieran Read did it extremely well in the pool game against the Springboks in 2019. He pretty much just killed it dead, and it forces them to play off static ball, or kick off static ball, so they’re not kicking on their terms.
“A sack play would work around that middle-back. It’s a little bit defeatist in the sense that you’re not getting up to challenge the ball, but they [the Springboks] are pretty effective.
“Marx was hitting his line-out jumpers crisp and they had it running, so that’s a tactic I would look at taking them to, defensively, to stop it.”
Parsons added that, on defence, the Springboks still pose a significant threat at the line-out even if they decide against forming a maul, as they showed against Los Pumas.
“Even when they didn’t maul, their off-the-top ball, their halfback was under so much pressure from Lood de Jager coming through and looking for him, and that’s probably the biggest emphasis of the Springboks.
“They’re just relentless on every play at the moment. Those little, small wins just mount up over and over again, especially in that line-out play, and can start playing mentally on a side, and it just didn’t allow the Argies to get into the game.”
Crusaders and Maori All Blacks scrumhalf Bryn Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that South Africa’s strengths aren’t limited solely to their line-out and rolling maul ability.
Hall said that their prowess at both the scrum and breakdown should also points of concern for the All Blacks, who were caught out Fiji’s forward pack when the two teams played each other in Dunedin last month.
“If you’re a South African team, you look at the Fijians and how the Fijians were able to penetrate through the line-out maul with the All Blacks early in that series,” Hall said.
“I think it’s going to be a good battle because I think [former Springboks coach Nick] Mallet came out and said they have got a better set-piece than the All Blacks.
“They’ve got a great scrum, they got a lot of penalties in that British and Irish Lions series, and even on the weekend as well, they were 100 percent, eight from eight, so it’s one area the All Blacks are probably going to be looking at.”
Parsons echoed Hall’s sentiments and made note that the Kiwi outside backs will have to withstand aerial pressure, as the Lions had to do, and be cautious of giving away many penalties, which the All Blacks have occasionally been guilty of this season.
“We saw Fiji get a few turnovers at the breakdown and the All Blacks made that adjustment, so I think that area will be crucial,” he told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“Who you select in the back three comes into it because, so many times, the errors that were made from not taking the high ball put the Springboks in such prime position to attack, but it also creates that ill-discipline and they got advantage plays and ended up taking the three.”
However, while Parsons acknowledged there are numerous areas that favour the Springboks, he said there were other areas that the All Blacks can exploit.
“Those three points are key for the All Blacks to focus on, but also I think there’s a couple of opportunities out there as well.
“Switching back down the blind a few times – Argy put a few kicks in behind when the wing was up, and I think [Willie] le Roux was trying to free himself to the open. There’s that little kick space if we’re sharp enough.
“Also, their phase play shape is pretty clear. When they run direct, they almost grab the forward by the jersey and go with him, and then when they look to play out the back as forwards, they spread that pod.
“It enables the All Blacks to bring some real heat, defensively, line speed, and almost do what the Springboks have been doing to other teams and put their skill sets under pressure a lot more through that area because there are some areas of their phase play that can be predictable, which gives you the ability to get off the line and go for it.”
It was announced on Tuesday that the All Blacks and Springboks will play their 100th test against each other in Townsville on September 25 after the Rugby Championship was relocated to Queensland following a Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand.
The two teams will then play each other again the following week on the Gold Coast.
The Springboks currently lead the Rugby Championship by four points, but the second-placed All Blacks have a game in hand against the Wallabies in Perth next weekend.
By Alex McLeod, @RugbyPass