Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan chats to JON CARDINELLI about how the adjustments to the breakdown approach will influence their attacking success, and his high hopes for the young loose forwards starting in Nelspruit on Saturday.
Following the Boks' resounding 44-10 win over Italy, many people thought that the Boks had changed tactics and embraced all-out attack. Is that the case, or is it more about building on what was set down in 2012, and adding an attack to complement your defence?
The game plan hasn't changed. Time is a wonderful thing. Last year was all about getting through it and establishing the plan. Now it's about technically improving. There's been a big emphasis this season at the breakdown, both on attack and defence.
What specifically have you looked to improve at the breakdown?
If we start with the attacking breakdowns, people often think that it's only about cleaning. However, there has to be a focus on the ball-carriers, because if they don't go forward, your team doesn't go forward. Then what we found is that northern hemisphere teams defend differently to those in the southern hemisphere, so we've made the adjustment to play against both types of teams. Then in terms of cleaning, we've worked on some specific techniques, because we want to have quick ball at the breakdown. We have some good ball-carriers, but for them to come into play, we need to have quick ball at the breakdown. When you get quick ball, you can get over the advantage line.
Heyneke Meyer mentioned on Wednesday that you have divided the year into three sections: the incoming tour, the Rugby Championship, and the end-of-year tour. How does your preparation and planning regarding the breakdown differ for each competition?
Argentina and the northern hemisphere teams approach the breakdown differently to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. We play against each other a lot during Super Rugby, so we know how each team attacks the breakdown. We learned a lot when we played Argentina last year in terms of their breakdown play, and we learned a lot on that end-of-year tour. The fields are a lot heavier in the north, and it's a different game because of the conditions. It's more forward oriented, not as quick, but just as intense. You can't get as much momentum on a wet field as you can on a dry field. So that's been taken into consideration in our planning over the past six months: where we are going to play, who we are going to play, and what the conditions are going to be like.
The game plan may not have changed, but there has been an improvement in the backline play. What do you put this down to?
In terms of backline structure, not a lot has changed. We've only played one Test this season, and while we did well, we still want to improve with every game. Not much has changed in terms of approach. If you have a good defensive line in front of you, you still have to play for territory. If there are opportunities to counter-attack, however, you must use them. A lot of the emphasis at the two training camps [which were held during Super Rugby] and over the past two weeks has been on decision-making: that is when to kick the ball back, and when to run it. We did well on the counter-attack last year if you remember the tries we scored in that series against England. The tries scored by Jean de Villiers and Morné Steyn in the first Test were both from the counter-attack. Then in the second Test, the tries scored by JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis, and Francois Hougaard were all from the counter-attack. So it's just about improving on that going forward.
Meyer said that the overall performance against Italy was good, but was concerned that the opposition put the Boks under pressure at the breakdown. What do you feel needs to improve in the coming weeks?
I think we can be a lot more clinical, especially on attack. Our play in the opposition's 22 needs a lot more work. If you get just one opportunity in a Test, you have to use it. If we had used more opportunities over the weekend, we may have scored a lot more points. But overall we are very happy. The breakdown was good, we lost our first turnover at the breakdown in the 78th minute where Martin Castrogiovanni stole it. If we are only conceding one turnover every 78 minutes, then we are happy.
The Boks will be without their first-choice back-row of Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen this week. However, it's been made clear that you want to develop some alternatives in these positions going forward. How do you feel the new players have fared, and where do they still need to improve?
The great thing about Siya Kolisi, Arno Botha, and Marcell Coetzee is that they've been involved with the Boks as long as the team management [since the start of the 2012 season]. Arno and Siya may not have played last year, but they were involved in the squad, and Marcell made his debut in the first game of 2012 and went on to play all 12 Tests. I have a lot of confidence in them. Marcell has played some world-class games, and in this year especially, his performance against the Crusaders in Durban was brilliant. Arno showed in his first Test what a special player he can be, and I think he fits that ball-carrying role perfectly. Siya is more balanced, and has played great rugby over the past two seasons, particularly on defence. Credit must go to all three of them for how they've improved, especially in their lineout and defensive breakdown play. They've worked tremendously hard over the past two weeks, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they go on Saturday.
Kolisi told me on Wednesday that he's learned a lot since joining the Bok camp, particularly when it comes to decision-making at the breakdown. What is the instruction from the management regarding competing for the ball at the breakdown?
You are always going to concede penalties in rugby matches. The key is to learn how to leave the 50/50 balls and rather go for what I call the 80/20s. If you've got an 80% chance of stealing that ball, you must attack it, but if it's 50/50, rather back your defence. All credit to Francois Louw, he's world-class, he really does pick his rucks. That's really the key to his play. He won two clean turnovers against Italy, and when he was in a position to win two more, he reacted to the referee and let go.
New Zealand have long set the standard when it comes to breakdown play. What have you taken from their performances in Super Rugby and in the All Blacks' first Test against France?
They're world-class, at Test and Super Rugby levels. Their body height at the breakdown is impressive, and it's something that we've looked at. They're No 1 in the world, and we're right behind them. We have a job to do now, but we're looking forward to playing them later in the year.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images
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