The Springboks’ kicking and fielding of the high ball will need to be on point in the all-important series against England, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has made a lot of big statements over the past few months. The Boks can bounce back quickly after a series of disappointing showings in 2016 and 2017. The Boks can play a positive and exciting brand of rugby. The Boks can, potentially, win the 2019 World Cup.
It remains to be seen if Erasmus’ team will make good on any of those promises. For starters, the Boks were anything but impressive in their season-opener against Wales ― which was to be expected, seeing that it was against an experimental side and the teams had to deal with travelling to a venue on the other side of the world.
More concerning was the Boks’ lack of physicality and aerial accuracy, and what that could mean for the more important series against England. The quality of the defence and the fielding of the high ball left a lot to be desired.
Again, one needs to bear in mind that seven debutants featured in the run-on XV in Washington DC. Five uncapped players were included on the Bok bench.
One also needs to remember that a squad comprising of second-and third-stringers travelled to the USA for this fixture, while the first-choice players remained in South Africa to prepare for the three Tests against England.
And yet, the coach himself has admitted that South African rugby has a problem with regards to its tactical kicking and aerial skills at Super Rugby and Test level. Erasmus said as much in a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine.
The Bok coach highlighted the fact that the better players in the New Zealand, Irish, and English teams ‘lived in the air’. From the execution of the kick-pass to the actual jumping and competing for the high ball, those nations are streets ahead of the rest in terms of their preparation and matchday accuracy.
Erasmus said that he expected an aerial assault by England in the coming series in South Africa. Scrumhalf Ben Youngs, flyhalf George Ford, and inside centre Owen Farrell will put the ball up for their team-mates to chase. They will target the less experienced Bok back-three and look to feed off any mistakes.
Erasmus was right to be concerned. South Africa has trailed New Zealand in this department, at Super Rugby and Test level, for some time. While we’ve see the big Kiwi wingers running over their smaller South African counterparts in the wider channels, we’ve also seen the likes of Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, and Ben Smith soaring higher than most to win the aerial contest and to initiate another wave of attack.
The Bok went into the recent fixture against Wales with an inexperienced back-three. They struggled to match the Dragons in the air, and one particular mistake converted the high ball into a try in the first half.
The Springboks will head into the first Test against England with another untried back-three combination. S’bu Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi boast plenty of potential, and deserves to make their respective Test debuts in Johannesburg next Saturday.
And yet, they haven’t been competing at the elite level for a long time considering that Nkosi played his first Super Rugby game in 2017 and Dyantyi in 2018. Willie le Roux may be favoured at fullback, but it must be a concern that the veteran hasn’t had the opportunity to play a single game alongside these rookies as yet.
England haven’t been great this season, but if their forwards achieve parity at the set pieces and collisions then Erasmus’s prophecy may indeed come to pass. Nkosi, Dyantyi, Le Roux and possibly Warrick Gelant will spend the next three games defusing high bombs.
Erasmus and assistants like Jacques Nienaber have been working closely with the respective South African franchises over the past few months. There’s been a drive to upskill the local players with regards to tactical kicking and aerial strengths.
It may not be what South African fans want to hear, especially after a defeat to Wales. The Boks were poor across that fixture, and looked particularly weak when they looked to kick and field the high ball.
The tactics will come under scrutiny, even though the better teams – including the all-conquering All Blacks – employ them on a weekly basis.
Erasmus told me that the New Zealanders and the Irish have evolved to the point where the players expect to retrieve a kick-pass 80% of the time. That kick-pass is no longer a 50-50, as it was in the past.
That statement speaks volumes for the level of skill in those teams, and indeed the emphasis the coaches place on that facet in training.
It also says a lot about the mindset. In those countries, the kick is a means to attack. A high ball can lead to a mistake by the would-be kick-receiver. If the kicking side manages to retrieve the ball, they will be at an advantage in that they will be running at a disorganised defence.
To be fair, there is only so much Erasmus and Nienaber – the defence and aerial specialist in the new-look coaching team – can do at this early stage. It will take time to hone those skills and find the right combinations to take South Africa through to the 2019 World Cup.
That said, a Bok back-three unit in the early stages of its development will have to deal with an aerial bombardment in the next three Tests against England. Those players will have to defuse the bombs lobbed by Youngs, Ford and Farrell. South Africa’s success in the series may depend on their bravery and accuracy.
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