The Springboks’ ability to find grass with their attacking kicks will hinge on their communication as much as their decision-making and execution, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The All Blacks have won the last two World Cups. They are ranked No 1 in the world, and are streets ahead of their closest rivals in just about every category.
England won every match in their 2016 Six Nations campaign. They recently clinched their first-ever series win in Australia. They currently sit at second in the World Rugby rankings.
Steve Hansen’s All Blacks and Eddie Jones’s England differ in many ways. Where they are similar is in their appreciation of a tactical-kicking game that can, if correctly executed, contribute to monumental Test wins and series victories.
Yes, Hansen’s All Blacks boast an intimidating attacking reputation. Sure, Jones’s England rely on their offensive defence to a fault. What both of these form teams have in common is their reliance on a tactical-kicking game that wins territory and creates try-scoring chances.
For those who have been following the trends of the past decade or so, this is hardly breaking news. What sets the All Blacks apart, though, is the quality of their communication in this facet of play.
So much is made about the quality of the decision-making and execution of tactical kicking in Test rugby these days, and rightly so. The best players know when the time is right to kick or pass. They know which weapon to reach for in their kicking artillery, be it a grubber, chip kick, contestable high ball, or tactical probe into space.
But the success of those kicks, and the scoring opportunities that often arise from them, is not down to the efforts of one player.
In the case of the All Blacks, a successful tactical kick is often the result of good communication between two or more players. This has also been apparent in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament when teams such as the Crusaders and Highlanders have employed similar tactics. The Highlanders, who won the 2015 tournament, have made the most kicks from hand to date. It's no coincidence considering that they boast two key All Blacks in scrumhalf Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith, and a great flyhalf prospect in Lima Sopoaga.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat to a former international coach about the modern trends in Test rugby. We had a chance to discuss what gives great teams like the All Blacks an edge.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation centred around a team’s strive for territory as well as the use of the kick as an attacking weapon. What did surprise me was his insistence that a strong kicking game is underpinned by communication, and that more than one or two individuals are tasked with identifying space and opportunities.
Which brings us to the Springboks. So much has been made of the attack-minded Lions in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament, and how the national team should follow suit. So much has been made of Allister Coetzee's drive to play ‘entertaining and positive’ rugby.
There’s also been a focus on the halfback pair of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, a pair who should, by popular perception, be controlling the flow and tempo of the game.
Firstly, the Lions have prospered in 2016 when they have strived to play a balanced game. When they’ve attempted to play ball-in-hand rugby for 80 minutes, they’ve been hammered by teams like the Crusaders and Hurricanes.
Secondly, Coetzee has publicly advocated a territory-driven approach.
Thirdly, the success of a tactical-kicking game depends on the communication between all the players in the backline. That includes the midfielders and all the players in the back three.
According to my learned source, a scrumhalf will often make a decision to box-kick based on the information fed to him by his blindside winger and flyhalf. The latter two players are better placed than the scrumhalf, who may have his view obscured at the ruck or is under pressure from the defence.
Good communication can result in a scoring opportunity. How many times have we seen an All Blacks team find grass with a tactical probe, or set themselves up for a successful contestable kick and kick-chase? Execution is crucial, but so too is the information coming from the kicker’s teammates.
The flyhalf will rely on his scrumhalf and inside centre for input regarding the vacant space on the field. Further out, the outside centre should be relaying information about the opposition defence.
When should the halfbacks employ a chip or grubber kick? Where has the defence overcommitted and perhaps left itself vulnerable? The No 13 should be talking to his flyhalf about the depth of the defence and the opportunities behind it.
Some of us may assume that a clever cross-kick by a flyhalf to a winger is down to the former’s skill and vision. It takes a collective effort, however, to ensure that such play comes off, and that a kick creates a try-scoring chance.
The All Blacks have turned the tactical kick into an art form over the past six years. They still don’t get nearly enough credit for their kicking strengths.
Coetzee’s Boks will take some time to replicate the feats of the All Blacks. They should continue to develop a system that utilises the kick as much as the pass. The perceptions of short-sighted fans be damned.
Ireland won the first Test at Newlands thanks to their defence and tactical-kicking game. They divided the tactical-kicking load between their 9, 10 and 15, and kept the Bok defence guessing with a series of attacking kicks.
Last Saturday at Ellis Park, Ireland targeted the left wing with a number of contestable high balls. These kicks were well chased, and Lwazi Mvovo lost the aerial contest time and again. While Mvovo’s aerial skills will rightly be questioned in the aftermath, praise must go to the Irish for their communication as well as their execution in applying the pressure and winning the turnover.
It’s been interesting to gauge the South African public’s reaction after the Boks’ first two Tests against Ireland. It’s been disappointing to see how many have spoken of the intent to kick in a negative manner.
This is not surprising, though, given that the kick is not producing the desired scoring result. The false assumption is that a relentless ball-in-hand approach will result in a try, despite the organisation of modern defences.
What the public needs to observe is the reasons for a bad kick and not the intent to kick. For example, Bok fullback Willie le Roux got it wrong on several occasions last week, not because he decided to kick, but because his kick was either too long or wayward and thus easily fielded by the opposition.
What the Boks must strive for in the series-decider against Ireland, and indeed in Rugby Championship clashes that follow later this year, is better communication between the kicker and those around him. Ultimately, it could result in the Boks winning back the ball, and scoring tries. Better execution of these kicks is a non-negotiable.
De Klerk and Jantjies will have a key role to play in Port Elizabeth this Saturday, but so too will the midfielders, wings and fullback.
If Coetzee is serious about winning this game, he would do well to select a player of Ruan Combrinck’s all-round ability on the wing. Combrinck has shown over the course of the Super Rugby season that he has the kicking and aerial skills to excel at Test level.
Combrinck, De Klerk and Jantjies have also combined well at Super Rugby level to ensure that attacking kicks result in scoring opportunities. Coetzee would do well to utilise this combination to the Boks’ advantage this weekend.
Photo: Peter Heeger/Gallo Images