Viva Rassie, long live the 7-1 split!

RYAN VREDE argues that the Springboks’ tactical and technical innovation, though controversial, has transformed the game for the better.

Innovation and Springbok rugby have not always been synonymous. Indeed, the team has, for a large chunk of the modern era, been perceived as tactically conservative and painfully pragmatic. It was a fair assessment and contributed significantly to their chronic mediocrity.

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This is not the case any longer. After years of following, the Boks – with Rassie Erasmus as the catalyst for innovation – are leading.

It began with Erasmus and Co. reviving a rugby relic – the “rush” defence – refining it in response to the demands of a modern attack. A new dimension of innovation was birthed at Twickenham in late August, where the Boks went with a 7-1 bench split. Against Scotland in Marseille, coloured lights shone down from the coaching box. The purpose was veiled, but I presume it contributed to the victory in ways they envisaged. Against Romania, four scrumhalves were named in the 23. All played, including Faf de Klerk as a replacement flyhalf.

Fast forward to what could be a defining fixture against Ireland, and what was deemed a 7-1 “experiment” in London, has become a tactical manifesto in Paris. The spilt lays bare the Boks’ intent. It will be a brutal examination of Ireland’s tactical, physical, and mental resilience.

Disruptors rarely exist without dissenters. And there has been no shortage of those willing to share their views on the 7-1 split in the press this week. Former Ireland hooker, Keith Wood has called for World Rugby to intervene, while, in the most bizarre take, former Leinster coach Matt Williams said it “…is not morally correct”.

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Williams argued that the Boks’ blueprint would be replicated at lower levels of the game, which would expose players to serious injury. This is an unsophisticated argument because it implies the Boks have a tactical responsibility to the game that transcends only doing what gives them the best possible chance of winning a Test match. They don’t. No elite sports team does.

These teams are defined by results. Innovation paves the path to victory. It doesn’t ensure it, but, historically, it certainly improves the likelihood thereof, assuming the innovation is rooted in an acute awareness of the strengths of your personnel.

I’ve seen clear parallels between what Erasmus and co. have done, and the innovation that has established English Premier League manager Pep Guardiola as the preeminent coach of his generation, perhaps any generation.

Most recently, Guardiola completely transformed the tactical face of football by deploying a defender in attacking positions in the middle of the field when in possession. Until then, it was widely accepted that the consequences of losing the ball in midfield were too dire to take risks there. Teams played around defences, rather than through them, deploying “wing backs” to exploit the space in the wide channels.

However, Guardiola, in the 2022-23 season, tore up the game’s tactical foundations, sending a defender into the midfield space, creating a numbers advantage in this critical area of the field. Analysts in the media immediately concluded that it would make his side, Manchester City, vulnerable to counter-attacks. They’d win nothing, they said. They won everything that mattered, owing in no small measure to the opposition’s inability to mount a meaningful tactical rebuttal.

I can’t say with certainty that the Springboks will win the World Cup off the back of a 7-1 split. But I am certain that it forced Ireland to examine the very foundations of the tactical base that underpins their 15-match winning streak.

The pressure the Springboks exerted on New Zealand at Twickenham did more than just force them to abandon a well-established game plan – it stripped the All Blacks of their very identity. They become a shadow of the side that beat the Boks by 15 points in Auckland in July. Tactical certainty gave way to tactical turmoil. Their identity crumbled, giving way to debilitating impostor syndrome against their great rivals.

This is the power of innovation. This is the potency of what Guardiola did, what Brendon McCullum’s “Bazball” did for England’s Test cricket side, and what all great leaders do.

To downplay the potential for failure is naive. Of course, Manchester City was vulnerable to counter-attacks, in the same way the Boks will be vulnerable should they lose a backline player to injury. There are inherent risks with innovation. But there are also significant rewards.

On the widespread calls for the Boks to be prevented from exploring this selection balance – any move from World Rugby to dictate a bench split would be a travesty and a tacit acknowledgment that there is no space in the game for those who colour outside of their lines.

I suspect that World Rugby will find it hard to sanction them in this way. History shows that what happens next is that the innovators are copied by those who once derided their approach. Better yet, new dimensions of innovation are unlocked. The game gets better as a result.

Long live the innovators.

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Photo: Twitter/@Springboks

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