Bok defence the best in the business

The Springboks’ airtight defence has become a lethal weapon in their arsenal. That should be celebrated not denigrated, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

On Tuesday, the All Blacks’ official website ran with an article purportedly as part of the buildup to the 100th Test against the Springboks. On closer inspection, though, the article was a little one-sided.

It started with the following:

‘The All Blacks will be looking to protect all that is good in Test rugby when taking on the Springboks in the Rugby Championship according to former British & Irish Lions and England five-eighths Stuart Barnes.

‘Barnes said the Springbok style was too concentrated on winning by stripping the game back to its barest essentials in his Times column.

That was evident at the weekend when the All Blacks put on a ‘kaleidoscopic display’ to beat Australia, while South Africa had been ‘too parsimonious’ in beating Argentina.

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“It’s easy to see the All Blacks as the sport’s saviour against the muscular conservatism of the Springboks; easy but erroneous. As a former player, I have immense respect for the heart, spirit and commitment of these Springboks.

“As a fan, however, I hate to see how they are stripping the international game back to its barest essential when they have so much more to offer in the way of talent,” he said.

It’s not the first time this sort of criticism has been levelled at the Springboks over the last few months, but for a team that has lost just two Tests in their last 17 appearances, they should not be bothered in the slightest.

In that same time, the Boks have added the Rugby Championship, World Cup and Lions series silverware to a once empty trophy cabinet.

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The Springboks are now nearly five points clear at the top of the World Rugby rankings, having once dwindled down in a lowly seventh place just three short years ago.

As a result, it stands to reason that the Boks are now becoming the victim of tall poppy syndrome: defined as a “tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable prominence in public life”.

Yet, it shouldn’t detract from the facts.

In the last 10 Test matches, the Springboks have conceded just four tries.

Just a solitary try was conceded throughout the World Cup playoffs, which included shutting out the free-scoring hosts Japan, and barricading their tryline against an England side that had comprehensively outplayed New Zealand in the semi-finals.

It was then always going to be interesting to see how the Springboks’ defence fared after the World Cup.

After all, it was a defensive system that relies on remarkable trust and cohesion, both in terms of players accurately reading the attack, but also in terms of the cover defenders doing a mop-up job when necessary.

The aggressive high press and outside-in suffocation is a high-risk, high-reward system, but the Boks have continued to master it — often gleefully forcing attacking players back infield and into the arms of power-hitting forwards.

During the Lions series, the four leading northern hemisphere nations combined on the tour to South Africa and could only muster a couple of maul tries.

What the Boks have done is turn their defence into a weapon. It’s no longer a secret weapon, but it remains just as difficult to defuse.

It’s often brutal and highly reliant on the Springboks’ physicality, but the game smarts and connection required between players to make it effective also have to be recognised.

The Bok defence is the best in the business. By some distance. It plays to their strengths in exactly the same way the All Blacks play to theirs by looking to make the most of the handling and ball skills of their players on attack.

Each to their own, but take nothing away from a Bok defence that is as brutal as it is beautiful in a Test-rugby context.

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Craig Lewis