Thanks to astute management and planning, the Springboks timed their World Cup title run to perfection, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Rassie Erasmus has made good on his promise to develop a wider group of players and raise the standards in every department. In 2018, the Bok coach blooded 19 players over the course of the season. He placed an emphasis on fitness and conditioning and spoke about the team peaking at the World Cup.
The Boks arrived in Japan with one of the fittest squads on the planet. Erasmus made it clear that he would split the group into A and B teams during the pool phase, just as he had done in South Africa’s triumphant Rugby Championship campaign. The move ensured every player in the squad remained match-sharp and that the first-choice side was well rested before the playoffs.
PLAYER MANAGEMENT AND SELECTION: 10/10
Erasmus was bold enough to make the difficult calls. He picked the hard-nosed Bongi Mbonambi ahead of the multi-talented Malcolm Marx and favoured the counterattacking strengths of Cheslin Kolbe over the power game of S’bu Nkosi. He continued to back scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and fullback Willie le Roux despite calls for the pair’s demotion.
His most significant move, however, was the selection of 10 tight forwards – and 14 forwards in total – in his match 23. The six-two split on the bench allowed the Boks to field a fresh pack in the second stanza of big matches and maintain their gargantuan effort up front.
‘We went with a six-two split because it spread the load and helped the tight five conserve their energy through the tournament,’ Erasmus said. ‘The bench split certainly helped us in terms of the buildup to the final. There was a six-day turnaround between the semi-final and the decider and we had to manage the workload.
‘Overall, we felt the pros of this selection policy outweighed the cons. It enabled us to bring a fresh tight five on to the park in the second half and keep the scrumming and mauling momentum going for 80 minutes. On defence, the presence of a fresh pack of forwards allowed us to close the holes and keep the opposition out. In the final, we saw how important this split was to our ability to keep England under pressure.’
The stats suggest that the Boks were among the most effective attacking teams in the tournament. Only the All Blacks (36) scored more tries than them (33).
Makazole Mapimpi was the top-try scorer for South Africa with six touchdowns. Damian de Allende’s powerful runs in the midfield often created space for men like Kolbe and Le Roux to exploit on the outside.
Any criticism of the Bok attack must be viewed in context. When one considers how dominant the Bok pack was, how well the halfbacks played for territory and how well the team as a whole did to get into great scoring positions, one can see how the side failed to realise its full potential.
Finishing was a problem, particularly in the first game against the All Blacks. Fortunately the Boks became more adept at taking their chances later in the tournament, as seen by De Allende’s try against Wales in the semi-final. After dropping several passes and spurning a host of scoring opportunities, the Boks fired late against England in the final to score two tries.
‘When there’s a bad pass or a skill error that was costly, you can’t be too harsh on the guys. You have to try to give them some confidence,’ said Erasmus.
‘I felt our execution improved as the tournament progressed. There were times when we weren’t consistent, as was the case when we failed to score against New Zealand in the early stages but then scored all those unanswered points late in the game.’
SET PIECES: 10/10
Raw power was never a problem for the Boks. They overcame a few technical issues at the scrum and learned to cope with the referees’ interpretations as the tournament reached the business end. The lineout boasted a 100% record until the semi-final and proved the best platform for attack.
The dominant scrum performance against England set up an emphatic win. Afterwards, England coach Eddie Jones and forwards coach Steve Borthwick admitted they were not surprised by the South Africans in that area. It will go down in history as one of the Boks’ finest and most influential forward displays.
Few teams managed to live with the Boks when they set their maul and began the march towards the tryline. Forwards coach Matt Proudfoot was seen punching the air shortly after South Africa bulldozed Japan all of 50m and set up De Klerk for a try.
‘The guys have matured a great deal over the past four years,’ said Proudfoot. ‘You look around the room and you see how many of them have 40 caps or more. A lot of them were playing in their second or third World Cup tournament. That experience certainly helped in the big matches.
‘As coaches we tried to empower the players to handle the situation as it unfolded on the field. We trusted them to solve the problems internally and were impressed by how they responded.’
The Bok defence has been a work in progress since Nienaber rejoined the coaching staff in 2018. At the World Cup, we saw a Bok side at the top of its defensive game in terms of the individual tackling as well as the collective strategy to rush and rattle opponents.
The Boks conceded just four tries during the tournament and only one in the knockout phase. According to Nienaber, however, this side is yet to reach its peak in defence.
‘It was never about how many points we conceded,’ he said. ‘From the start, we said that it didn’t matter whether the team conceded zero or 40 points. We all bought into the process and targeted certain things we wanted to get right in terms of our defence and putting the opposition under pressure. So even when we played Namibia, Italy and Canada, we were looking at the bigger picture and what we would need to do to stop the better teams later in the tournament.’
COLLISIONS AND BREAKDOWNS: 10/10
In 2018, Erasmus set out to restore the Boks’ reputation as the most physical team in world rugby. By the end of the World Cup, there was no debate regarding their right to that title.
The Boks took the fight to opponents at the gainline and at the breakdowns. Erasmus highlighted Francois Louw’s breakdown win in the latter stages of the semi-final as a turning point. From that penalty, the Boks won field position and subsequently played themselves into a position to clinch the match.
In the final, South Africa’s ‘line-in-the-sand mentality’ ensured they bossed these areas. Duane Vermeulen led the way in this regard and was deservedly named Man of the Match.
Their ploy to flood the breakdown and disrupt opponents also proved successful. They competed fiercely in this area, attending every two out of three opposition rucks. It’s little wonder Japan, Wales and England were unable to impose themselves on attack.
KICKING AND AERIAL SKILLS: 8/10
Heyneke Meyer believes the Boks’ loss to the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup semi-final was down to their inferior performance in the air. While South Africa have made some improvements in this area since 2018, they were troubled by New Zealand’s kick-chase tactics in the first game of the 2019 World Cup and conceded two tries in the wake of their aerial mistakes.
The Boks were better under the high ball in the semi-final against Wales. The final against England witnessed yet another war for aerial supremacy and the Boks certainly rose to the occasion. Mapimpi, one of the weakest in this department 18 months ago, showed terrific anticipation and skill to beat his direct opponent when chasing the high ball.
There was a lot of criticism of the Boks’ tactics in this tournament. The decision to box-kick or probe for territory, however, yielded significant gains for them. No side, bar the All Blacks in the first game, managed to stop the Boks from asserting themselves in this manner and ultimately dictating the shape and flow of the contest.
LEADERSHIP AND COMPOSURE: 9/10
Handre Pollard recovered after an inconsistent start to the tournament to nail some important goals in the playoffs. The flyhalf certainly showed his composure when he nailed a late penalty from the touchline to give the Boks a narrow win over Wales in the semi-final. In the final, Pollard bounced back from an early miss to nail eight consecutive goals and keep the pressure on England.
Siya Kolisi and his group of leaders stood tall throughout the campaign. While there was often a focus on the skipper, he made it clear on several occasions that he could not carry the burden alone. Pollard, Vermeulen, Louw and even non-playing members of the squad, like Schalk Brits, all had crucial roles to play in the campaign.
‘I will never forget the first thing he did when he became captain of the Boks last year,’ said Louw. ‘Siya encouraged those around him to support him and to help him lead.
‘Being self-aware is a fantastic trait. You know what your strengths and weaknesses are and you surround yourself with people who may be wiser in some areas. When you do that you will succeed.
‘He led with great courage.’
The 10/10 rating is deserved given the magnitude of the team’s achievement. Indeed, it’s tempting to exaggerate and suggest an 11 or 12, given how far they have come after languishing at seventh in the world rankings at the start of 2018. Erasmus, the coaches and players have worked hard to drag South Africa from the brink back to the pinnacle of Test rugby.
The Boks have room to improve. That is an encouraging thought. While they’ve made history by becoming the first team to win the Rugby Championship and the World Cup in the same year, there’s a sense among the group that the best is yet to come.
*This article originally appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now!