Ignore the knee-jerk reaction to the latest Springbok defeat because ‘the gameplan’ is the primary reason South Africa are world champions, writes ZELIM NEL.
It’s fashionable to bash the slumping Boks after a 19-17 reverse against the All Blacks consigned them to a third straight loss.
The reaction is common to rugby where much of the media, littered with fans of the amateur game, pine for professional rugby to emulate what they were taught about the sport at school and resent the success of winning teams for using tactics they don’t understand.
Do you remember the ‘boring’, all-conquering Bulls under Heyneke Meyer? Or how about Eddie Jones’ ‘boring’ England, who won Six Nations titles and represented the northern hemisphere at the 2019 Rugby World Cup?
Clive Woodward’s 10-man England were also slammed for being boring and they went on to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Jake White’s boring Boks won the 2007 showpiece.
Rassie Erasmus spent the first three years of his time at the Stormers trying to explain professional rugby to amateur club officials as he turned the Cape side into Super Rugby contenders. They nodded throughout his presentation but then jumped on the bandwagon of criticism whenever the Stormers lost a match.
And that’s where Erasmus and the Boks find themselves in 2021. It’s rugby tradition that the All Blacks rule the roost and whenever England or South Africa upset the fairytale, the pundits warn that the game is facing extinction.
Unfortunately for them, the Townsville Test proved quite the opposite. If South Africa’s style of play is so wrong, and the All Blacks ‘play the game the way it’s supposed to be played’ (whatever that means), how come Jordie Barrett had to rescue the world’s top-ranked team from the villainous Boks with a last-minute penalty?
As one world-class, pro coach told me after watching the opening 20 minutes: “I’ll be shocked if South Africa doesn’t lose by 30.”
The Boks played no rugby and lost by two. Conversely, the All Blacks made 60% of the carries and 90% of the offloads as their attack was fuelled by almost 70% quick ball. They scored as many tries as South Africa and just two points more.
This is not to say the world champions played perfectly, or even well. Quite to the contrary, the Boks were poor and yet almost claimed a famous win over a team they have a 17% win rate against outside South Africa since 1996.
Erasmus used percentage tactics – low-risk rugby built on prioritising territory over possession – to achieve milestone success at Free State, then Western Province and then famously saved the Boks from their darkest period to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup. If success is measured in winning, the plan is close to perfect.
But, if this assertion is true, where has it all gone wrong? Even the best-laid plans require capable actors to achieve the objective and South Africa’s actors have struggled to maintain their standards over the past month.
Whether it’s a hangover, the mental fatigue of months in a bubble or a combination of both, the Boks have failed to live up to their reputation for defence in recent weeks.
The Boks tackled at a per-match average of 88% efficiency to win the 2019 Rugby Championship. The line integrity meant that 25 kicks translated into 103 carries.
In Tokyo, the eventual world champions tackled at 91% efficiency and 27 kicks reaped 96 carries. Against the Lions, South Africa averaged 31 kicks and 86% tackle efficiency produced 77 carries and, in two convincing wins over Argentina, the world champs completed 89% of their tackles to convert 34 kicks into 82 carries.
But the Boks have lost their appetite for tackling since arriving in Queensland. Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard’s poor defence was evident in tries for Wallabies Marika Koroibete, Andrew Kellaway and Len Ikitau, and it was the scrumhalf who first missed Codie Taylor before the All Blacks hooker broke away to send Will Jordan to pay dirt in Townsville on Saturday.
In the past three Tests, the Boks have tackled at an average of 79% and 31 kicks have translated into 70 carries. Against New Zealand, De Klerk tackled at 60% and Pollard at 70%, and that was an improvement on each of their tallies from last week’s 30-17 reverse at the Suncorp Stadium.
While a case can certainly be made for the Boks to adjust the sliders on their attack from turnovers and kick receipt, the plan is as good as World Cup gold. But a plan built on creating pressure through defence isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if the likes of De Klerk and Pollard aren’t tackling like world champions.