Springboks will mind their language

Date published: September 30 2015

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South Africa's line-out in their Pool B match against Scotland at St James' Park in Newcastle on Saturday will come under scrutiny that would impress Alan Turing's Bletchley Park team. Having had their calling codes cracked in big games before, the Springboks are already wary of potential codebreakers in the opposition team.

Tremendous subterfuge goes into lineout codes, with teams devising patterns of numbers and words to indicate how far along the line the ball will be thrown. Deciphering these codes presents an intellectual challenge to members of the opposition pack who want to try to steal the ball.

For many years, South Africa made calls in Afrikaans, but Scotland now have three players with the necessary linguistic skills to crack their codes, in Cape-born back row Josh Strauss, tight-head prop Willem 'WP' Nel, plus back row David Denton, who was born in nearby Zimbabwe and went to college in the Western Cape.

Flanker Schalk Burger said the team were aware of the problem. "I think Afrikaans is not going to be that handy with the very Scottish surnames of Nel and Strauss," he said.

Scotland have their own lineout worries, with injury ruling 2m (6ft 7in) Grant Gilchrist out of the rest of the tournament, though 21-year-old fellow lock Johnny Gray has proved to be a shrewd international lineout caller since taking on the role last year.

Lineouts have long been thought to be one of the South African strengths, with veteran Victor Matfield (pictured above) the brains behind the team’s calls and Duane Vermeulen and now Eben Etzebeth increasingly calling the shots.

But the Boks have been stung before. As part of England's meticulous preparations for their 2003 campaign, lock Ben Kay unlocked the Springboks’ simple cypher with the help of South African ‘visual skills’ guru Sherylle Calder, who simply taught him to count from one to nine in Afrikaans – een, twee, drie, vier, vyf, ses, sewe, agt, nege. The Boks relied on simple number calls and Kay claimed to have won some key lineout ball on the strength of cracking this code.

Other teams are thought to have gone even further to break opposition lineout codes. Paranoid British and Irish Lions thought Australia had secretly filmed their lineout practices in 2001. When the Lions toured New Zealand under Clive Woodward in 2005, the squad were beset by similar fears and calamitously changed all their lineout codes on the eve of the first Test.

Against Ireland in 2009, Matfield claimed to have suffered the "worst lineout contest in my life" when the Irish forwards, trained by former Springbok assistant coach Gert Smal, picked up his Afrikaans calls.

In Newcastle on Tuesday, loose forward Francois Louw hinted that the team's cryptographers were working on a solution for this World Cup. "They’ve got guys that understand Afrikaans," he said. "But we’ll find a way around it."

One solution might be to try another of South Africa’s 11 official languages, such as Zulu or Sotho, in which the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, are fluent, but that might require some quick lessons for the rest of the pack.

With thanks to World Rugby

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