Lukhanyo Am’s anticipation and awareness are important factors in the Springboks’ high-risk, high-reward defensive structure, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
The Springboks have basically gone back to the future as far as their defence is concerned. In 2004 and 2005, Jake White’s team had some success against the All Blacks by employing a ‘rush defence’. They were quick off the line, and tackled from the outside in.
It was a helter-skelter form of defending, which at first, caused chaos in the New Zealanders’ ranks when it was properly employed.
But it wasn’t something that really lasted past 2005. When the Boks won the World Cup in 2007, discipline and patience and holding the line were key.
Because the Boks employed the boot a fair bit in those days, a solid chase line was also important.
White didn’t play with a fetcher, so fanning out and stopping the opposition’s momentum was their preferred method of stopping the opposition in their tracks.
But since then, in the next 10 years, South Africa’s defensive effort became less and less proactive, and a lot more reactive. The rugby world, on the other hand, started bringing in a lot more linespeed to their efforts. It’s not quite the rush defence, but definitely defending with a lot more verve and energy off the line to get momentum when being forced to tackle.
In 2017, the Allister Coetzee’s Boks were humiliated 57-0 by the All Blacks in New Zealand. The world’s No 1 side were brilliant on the night, but they were helped by the Boks’ passive nature on defence and their inability to scramble and stop the counter.
The Springboks waited for the big, fast and skillful New Zealanders to run at them, and paid a heavy price. The same thing happened the year before in Durban when the Boks also copped over 50 points.
However, that old, outdated defensive structure was the first thing to be chucked out by new Springbok boss Rassie Erasmus and South African defence guru Jacques Nienaber in 2018.
The Boks immediately started troubling the All Blacks with their linespeed and disruptive style of defending. It wasn’t perfect in Wellington in 2018, but it got the job done on a beautiful night for Springbok rugby. A year later, at the same venue, the Boks managed to restrict the All Blacks to one try and just 16 points with their defensive system.
The 2019 version of the rush defence has the same fundamentals as White’s version of 15 years ago, but with a few more modifications. It definitely puts a lot more onus on the individual defender.
These days the Boks compete a lot more for the ball on the ground, while they arguably play a lot more in the face of the opposition, especially in the wide areas, where the outside centre and wings track the ball rather than their opposite numbers.
For this to be successful, you need players to make good decisions in a split second. They have to know when to hold their ground or shoot up and perform a smother tackle, which is important to negate the offload when you leave a lot of space on the outside.
The outside centre becomes a very important player. You need a player who is going to back himself to cut down the space and distribution of the opposition.
This is why Lukhanyo Am finds himself in the inside track to start in the No 13 jersey for the Boks at the World Cup next month.
I gave Am a six for his performance in the 16-16 tie with the All Blacks, thinking he had a solid all-round performance without being spectacular. But with the benefit of hindsight – watching a recording of the match – I should have given him a few more points for his 52-minute outing.
Am’s anticipation on defence was absolutely superb. He was like a bit of cul-de-sac for the All Blacks backs, as he tackled man and ball and even managed a few big hits on the likes of Sonny Bill Williams.
His timing was wonderful, as he more often than not got man and ball, and prevented Williams from getting his hands through the tackle. He also got in between the All Blacks attackers and prevented their dangerous wide players from getting good ball to attack with.
What also makes the Sharks man good is that he can compete for the ball on the ground after completing a tackle. His breakdown skills are good enough to slow the ball down.
To the naked eye, it looks like the Boks’ defensive structure is just organised chaos. But when last did you see the All Blacks knock the ball on or throw the number of stray passes as they did in Wellington?
There is a method to the Boks’ madness on defence, and Am is one of the important strings that keeps it all together.
It also helps that this is the fittest Springbok team we have seen since Peter de Villiers’ all-conquering class of 2009.
Yes, the Boks’ defence is not the finished product – they are vulnerable to the counter-attack, as was the case in Wellington – and the All Blacks will also have a plan to counter the South Africans when they meet at the World Cup in Japan on 21 September.
However, the Springboks, with Am calling the shots in the middle of the park, are again a formidable team when it comes to defence.
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