The Springboks’ excellent set-piece and breakdown performance in Port Elizabeth bodes well for the more challenging clashes in Argentina and Australasia, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks claimed their fourth successive win when they downed the Pumas on Saturday. For the fourth successive time in 2017, they scored three or more tries and 35 or more points.
The Boks’ improvement on attack, of course, should be linked to their improvements at the gainline and on defence. Offensive defence was a hallmark of their play in the three Tests played in June. They didn’t concede more than 15 points and more than two tries in a single game against France.
Those stats don’t tell the full story of a shift in mindset. Brendan Venter’s influence was patent across that series and certainly in the recent Test against Argentina in Port Elizabeth. The Boks are catching up with the All Blacks and England in the sense that they are using defence as a means of attack.
The All Blacks scored eight tries in their 54-34 win against the Wallabies in Sydney on Saturday, many of those from turnover ball. They didn’t have a great deal of possession in the first stanza. Yet a superior breakdown performance allowed them to force turnovers. They scored six tries and 40 points in the first half alone.
The Boks aren’t operating at that level yet. Their stats against Argentina, however, suggest that they are moving in the right direction.
The Boks completed 149 of their 155 tackle-attempts against the Pumas. That's a 96% success rate. While the overall performance was far from perfect, there was nothing wrong with the intent and accuracy of the defence.
The success of the defence can be linked to the Boks’ strength at the set pieces. South Africa won all eight of their lineouts and all nine of their scrums. They put Argentina under a lot of pressure at the latter set pieces. Prop Coenie Oosthuizen, in his first start since 2014, deserves plaudits.
There were many times in the game where the Boks may have opted to play it safe after winning a penalty. Captain Eben Etzebeth, however, never hesitated to back his set piece when he felt a seven-pointer was on.
Three of the Boks’ four tries were scored after Etzebeth turned down a shot at goal. Raymond Rhule finished after the Bok lineout set the platform deep in Argentina territory in the 52nd minute. Siya Kolisi crossed the line in the 64th minute after another dominant lineout had put the hosts on the front foot. Towards the end of the game, Etzebeth turned down a shot in front of the posts and called for a scrum. After the Boks had taken the ball through the phases, Pieter-Steph du Toit reached for the whitewash to score.
Overall, it was a solid start to the Rugby Championship in the context of what transpired last year. The Boks battled to make an impact at the gainline and their defence was a shambles throughout the 2016 season.
In the context of the games to come, however, the Boks should be more critical of their recent performance. They forced the Argentina scrum to impede on several occasions, but failed to steal a single lineout when it was the visitors’ turn to feed. Going forward, they will need to exert more pressure in this area.
The Boks battled to assert themselves at the breakdowns in the first half, and there was a time when a side-to-side attack played into the Pumas’ hands. The Boks failed to dominate the collisions and took poor decisions during this period. This was evident when Jan Serfontein opted to kick when Joaquin Tuculet was back. The fullback went on to spark a counterattack that led to a try for the visitors.
The Boks were more dominant at the collisions and breakdowns in the second stanza. They made several important turnovers. They appeared to be at their most physical when Jean-Luc du Preez was brought on at blindside flank.
Eyebrows were raised when Allister Coetzee selected three flanks, two of them opensides, in his starting back row. Jaco Kriel had some success at the breakdown, but looking ahead to the matches against Australia and New Zealand, the Boks will surely need to field a more balanced back row.
Their ability to challenge the likes of New Zealand at the gainline will depend on the selection of one bruiser – at the very least – in this combination.
More should be expected of the Bok backs in the coming weeks, too. The option-taking, especially in the first stanza, left a lot to be desired. The Boks will need to vary their attack to a greater degree if they are to enjoy more success on the tour to Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
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