Why teams struggle against Boks' kicking game
OPINION: Over and above a watertight defence, from a tactical point of view it’s clear that the Springboks’ kicking approach is extremely sound and is right up there with the best teams in the world.
During the British & Irish Lions series, it was notable how the home side targeted the visitors through a range of kicks (box, distance and touch) with the primary aim of generating a favourable kick return.
Much like their critically acclaimed defence, the Springboks’ tactical kicking game is layered and has been built over time. The fact that the Springboks have only conceded a single try after two rounds of the Rugby Championship is credit to their defensive system, but it also has to do with their kicking game.
In back-to-back Test matches, the Springboks neutralised the Pumas attack by doing well aerially and kicking effectively. The Pumas pounce and really take advantage of poor kicks and turn-overs, but the Boks didn’t really give them many broken-field opportunities to do what they do best.
As much as the aerial contest within the modern game may frustrate some people, it’s mightily effective and the Springboks do it damn well. I believe the Boks are on par when it comes to their kicking game because it has been a total focus for them over the last few years.
It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the oval game, but the kicking battle was the most influential facet of play during the British & Irish Lions series.
Faf de Klerk, who launched 18 kicks in the first Test and 11 in the second, drove the Springboks’ kicking strategy before he succumbed to a hip injury. His tactical kicking game has advanced and it’s fair to say that South Africa depend on him to do the bulk of their kicking.
In the early stages of De Klerk’s career, it was neither a natural part of his repertoire nor necessarily his go-to tactic. However, he has since honed said skills incredibly well.
With De Klerk missing the final Test against the British & Irish Lions and consecutive matches against Argentina, the triumvirate of Cobus Reinach, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux shared the kicking duties. However, as the well-worn cliché in the game goes, the kick is only as effective as the chase.
At Saracens, we at times broke away from tradition by sending players out of the defensive line on the kick-chase. In many stages, what we had is what we called a ‘Rabbit’ who was a player that was given licence to go out and disrupt opposition on the counter-attack. However, effort off-the-ball was more of a focus for us than the ‘Rabbit’ tactic so to speak. It was about the kick-chase and the effort involved in that endeavour.
It was an aspect of our play that was closely monitored and measured in real time. The GPS trackers fitted onto the players’ backs recorded the distances covered and the speeds clocked when it came to the kick-chase. Based on the empirical evidence, it was no secret at the time that if we weren’t chasing kicks hard enough or covering the ground at sufficient speed, we would be taken aside and read the riot act.
Brendan Venter, who was highly influential in reshaping Saracens, often stressed to the playing group that the coaching staff would be more lenient when it came to skill errors as opposed to effort errors. As a consequence, effort off the ball was paramount and I notice the Springboks have a similar approach in terms of work ethic.
Speaking to that point, I would say that the return of Duane Vermeulen will be key for the men in green and gold. Not only is he the defensive organiser among the forwards, he is a proper leader in the pack and has been unbelievable in 54 Tests for South Africa. As an old-head – at the age of 35 –he also takes plenty of heat and responsibility off captain Siya Kolisi’s shoulders because he brings calmness and decision-making to the team.
Having someone like Duane within the Springbok camp is like gold because, not only is he extremely pivotal on the Saturday when he does battle between the four white lines, from the Monday to the Friday he offers a massive impact on the training pitch.
The Springboks are going to get tested against different opposition in the coming weeks – namely Australia and New Zealand – and there will be injuries to players in certain positions. However, it has been amazing to witness what this team has already accomplished. Even when the chips have been down they have managed to come up with the goods which speaks to their impressive squad depth.
By Neil de Kock, @RugbyPass