Analysis: Springbok forwards’ dominance

Date published: October 11 2017

This week our analyst takes a look at how the Springboks’ forwards dominated their opponents in their narrow loss to the All Blacks at Newlands.

Just two games ago, the Springboks lost to the All Blacks by 57-0, on Saturday they lost by a solitary point. Now, you may say that the 57-0 drubbing was a shock result and should be filed under historical curiosities and accept that it wouldn’t happen again. Unfortunately for South Africa, this has been the norm for the three Tests against New Zealand that came before Saturday. The 57-0 loss might have been the largest ever away loss to the All Blacks, but the 57-15 loss at home last year was the largest ever points conceded total and largest margin of loss at home. Those two losses were preceded by a 28-point loss in Christchurch before some respectability was restored with a 2 point loss in the World Cup semi-final.

It appears as though the 57-0 loss was a sizeable dip in an otherwise encouraging period for South African rugby. However, how did the Springboks re-gather for this game, where they caused the Rugby Championship champions more issues than they may have faced in the whole tournament?

Firstly, it wasn’t defensively, they made 75 percent of their tackles compared to 71 percent in the drubbing. New Zealand had three more defenders beaten on Saturday but three fewer clean breaks. South Africa gained more yards on Saturday but their average yards per carry actually fell slightly from 2.5m to 2.4m. The big change was where the yardage came from, around a half of all the metres made came from the pack on Saturday, that total was around a quarter in the 57-0 loss.

There was also a spread of good results from the forwards, four of the eight starters had more than 40m in carries during the game. During this article, we will look at how South Africa improved as a result of improved play from their pack and what this means as they head north for the Autumn internationals.

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The Springboks succeeded in their forward’s running game because of three key things; they manufactured mismatches, they beat the first man consistently and they were inventive when it came to recycling. The above clip is an example of the mismatches they created, they put Courtnall Skosan at the front of the lineout and Siya Kolisi in the traditional scrum-half position. This does two things, firstly it screams ‘maul’ so the All Blacks stick Dane Coles where Aaron Smith would usually be so that he can defend the maul, Smith then gets dragged into the lineout because of the presence of Skosan and that opens up a big old running lane for Malcolm Marx when he gets the ball back.

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A similar thing happens later in the game where the South Africans try to create a mismatch, this time out of the back of the lineout. As Lood de Jager rushes to the front of the lineout to be lifted, Eben Etzebeth sneaks out the back. Because he doesn’t have any lifters with him, the All Blacks ignore him and he gets a free run at the defensive line. You may notice that Siya Kolisi is the first man into the ruck, had the Springboks moved their non-lineout forwards a little wider, and dragged the All Blacks defensive forwards with them, they may have created an even better match-up as Etzebeth got to run at a selection of backs instead.

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On the face of it, nothing happens in this clip, but, if you look a little closer, you can see how Malcolm Marx is scanning for gaps in the fringe defence. Ross Cronje was leading the show from scrum-half but the forwards had free rein to pick and go from the back of the ruck if they spotted a hole in the fringe, something which the All Blacks have struggled with in the past.

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In this clip, Pieter Steph-du-Toit did exactly that, and although it led to a turnover, it was a prime example of how the Springboks were pressuring the fringes. The same thing happens again in the below example, after Steven Kitshoff won the ball back from a kick, Malcom Marx continued the attack immediately by attacking the gaps in front of him. Most teams would do something similar, but there was a clear focus to attack the fringe if it was looking weak.

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We’ve had a look at how the Springboks created those mismatches, but the below example also shows how they were keen to keep the ball moving and take advantage of some rugby intelligence. Having said all that, the example below is a penalty to the All Blacks, you do have to release the ball before you can get back to your feet. But, it’s a clear example that South Africa were thinking and they weren’t content to wait for a ruck to form and for the play to slow down.

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In the next example, we’ll see Kitshoff take a pretty poor pass from the lineout and then roll, to create time. Rolling at least once is a good way of buying time as you wait for your support to arrive, particularly for those coaching youth rugby, where the players are generally observers when a team-mate is tackled. But, you can see that Kolisi has one hand straight on the ball, anticipating the sneak through the middle.

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We mentioned that the third way the South African forwards performed well in the running game, was that they beat the first man. Some teams, such as Wales, will try and generate quick ball through their forwards by flinging it to a pod and then having two supporters immediately over the ball so the scrum-half can get it away. That wasn’t South Africa’s ambition here, they wanted to use the forwards to generate space which the backs could then attack, that required that they beat the first man and sucked the defence into the breakdown.

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De Jager crashes through two men and offloads to the waiting Marx, there’s not a massive gain but it immediately draws the defenders around and leaves two behind the play so there’s space to work with.

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The same thing happens here, Kitshoff is at risk of losing yardage. But the secondary shove sends him over the gain line and leaves the All Blacks a man down defensively and condensing around the breakdown.

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In the final example, Sam Cane is offside but Etzebeth just runs straight through him and pushes the All Blacks onto the back foot. It’s amazingly simple, but beating the first man makes a massive difference because the defense will have to react and space will open up.

Conclusion
Whisper it, but South African rugby is improving. They are becoming more competitive in games and they are looking like they could challenge the All Blacks. But, and it’s a massive but, they won twice this year, and drew twice, and finished third overall in the Rugby Championship. In 2016, they won twice and finished third overall. And, as we’ve already spoken about, they lost 57-0 to the All Blacks! For the moment, the Springboks remain the third best southern hemisphere side, and we will see what that means in the World when they face Ireland, France, Italy and Wales in the Autumn. The pack is coming together, the backs are beginning to look more convincing, now they just need to find the consistency to announce their return to the upper echelons of the sport.

by Sam Larner


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