South Africa’s best teams and players need to rethink their approach to defence sooner rather than later, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Champions Cup final certainly lived up to the hype. More than 50,000 fans crammed into St James’ Park to watch Saracens tackle Leinster for the title of Europe’s best club. They were treated to a courageous display by Saracens, who never wavered in their belief that relentless defence wins big tournaments.
It’s something the rest of the rugby community should keep in mind as the World Cup draws near. While the All Blacks have played the most innovative brand of rugby between global tournaments, they’ve admitted that defence earned them the Webb Ellis Cup itself in 2011 and 2015.
After the Crusaders won their second-consecutive Vodacom Super Rugby title last year, coach Scott Robertson spoke about the team’s defence and character as campaign-defining. The Crusaders scored the most tries over the course of the tournament, but shifted into championship gear during the playoffs.
More recently, the Crusaders put 45 points and seven tries past the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld. There’s something to be said, however, for the fact that they completed more kicks from hand (31) and more tackles (122) than the hosts.
On Saturday night in Newcastle, Leinster completed 184 tackles and Saracens a whopping 224. While Saracens missed 33 tackles, one needs to bear in mind that their success rate of 87% is at the high end of the defensive spectrum. What’s more, the vast majority of those hits – as anybody who watched the clash will attest – were dominant.
Contrast that performance to that of the Bulls on Friday. Pote Human’s side missed a similar number of tackles (30) in the heavy loss to the Crusaders. Their tackle success-rate (78%), however, was poor and the vast majority of those hits were passive.
It’s hard to know what to make of the Bulls this year, or indeed some of the other South African sides. The Bulls produced a similar performance a few weeks back when they conceded 56 points and seven tries to the Chiefs. Their defence on that occasion lacked intelligence and heart, and the opposition took full advantage.
A couple of months ago, Rassie Erasmus highlighted defence, tactical kicking and aerial skills as the most important facets of the game at a tournament like the World Cup. At that stage, Erasmus was pleased with the South African Super Rugby teams’ performances in these areas.
Thirteen rounds into the Super Rugby tournament, however, and only one team can lay claim to an approach that resembles that of a Test side.
While the Sharks have had their problems – the late lapses in Christchurch and Hamilton cost them two big wins – they have attempted to use their physicality and defence as a weapon. The Bulls, Lions and Stormers, however, have failed to deliver in the most crucial departments.
The Lions conceded four tries to the Waratahs and were somewhat fortunate to finish on the right side of the result at Ellis Park on Saturday.
It was a performance that prompted more questions than answers about their progress. Poor defence cost them when they featured in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 finals, and continues to cost them late in the 2019 season.
Erasmus should be worried. At this rate, no South African side will make an impression in the playoffs. The Boks in those sides will carry bad habits through to the international season.
One has to wonder if it’s too late for Erasmus and his assistants to stage an intervention. Clearly all four of the teams require help in some shape or form.
The stats tell a story with regards to certain individuals. Elton Jantjies missed more tackles than any other player in Super Rugby last year, and is hovering below a 70% tackle-success rate in 2019. Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse have also struggled to complete a large percentage of their tackle attempts.
Jantjies and Willemse look set to feature at the World Cup later this year. Does Erasmus wait until the squad is in camp ahead of the Rugby Championship to address these issues?
And what of the mental frailty that has gripped teams like the Bulls in their recent fixtures against Kiwi opposition? For all the pre-season talk about restoring the franchise’s fearsome reputation, the Bulls have lacked the ability as well as the courage to stay in the fight with the New Zealanders at the gainline.
There were some exceptions this past Friday – with Duane Vermeulen battling hard to cause the Crusaders some problems at the breakdown – but too many individuals retreated into their shells and allowed a loss to degenerate into an embarrassment.
One would hope that the Stormers follow the Sharks’ lead and endeavour to stifle the Crusaders at the collisions and breakdowns. Attitude will be as important as accuracy in that fixture. A strong tactical showing by the Stormers, not to mention an 80-minute display of physical and uncompromising defence, should give Erasmus a reason to be hopeful.
It’s high time that South African players started putting their hands up. The Boks need to start making the necessary physical and mental shift with the World Cup in mind.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images