To say their scrum is the key to their wins is a fair assessment of the South African performances during the knockout stages of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Both against France and England, the impact of the feared ‘Bomb Squad’, and in particular Ox Nche, has been the difference between winning and losing.
Many believe that the Boks breed Supermen in the front-row; bigger, more powerful, and more dynamic, but is that really the case, or is it something else?
Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with a key member of the 2019 world champion Springboks, hooker Schalk Brits, to understand exactly what makes those bombs tick within the South African setup.
Resetting our thinking
“When Rassie Erasmus took over as Springbok coach, with Jacques Nienaber and Matt Proudfoot, we had a long discussion about scrummaging and why, at that moment, we weren’t quite as dominant as teams in the past. We talked about how it was part of the DNA of Springbok rugby, and Rassie challenged us to think differently about it, and he asked us to embrace it as a key part of our overall strategy,” explained Brits.
“We said to him ‘Well, we can’t scrum for penalties in every scrum’.
“Rassie smiled and replied, ‘Why not? If you’re fit enough and mentally prepared, of course you can. This can be the weapon that differentiates us from the rest. If you get your fitness, engagement and technique right, it doesn’t matter if there’s two or 20 scrums in the match, you can fight for a penalty in each and every one, and that’s exactly what I want you to aim for.’
“Rassie made us think of complete dominance, of having the mindset of relishing and getting excited for every single opportunity to scrummage.
“He designed the 6-2 split on the bench as a big part of this, and he asked us to no longer think of ourselves as 1,2,3 and 16,17,18 but as two integral units of the team that must create a bond of absolute love and friendship based upon mutual aims and looking after each other to be the best we possibly can be,” Brits enthused.
“When the referee pings for a scrum, then we are there, ready and waiting to contribute and make a quantitative difference to the team and the scoreboard; no hiding, no passive scrumming, just every single one a moment to dominate our opposing pack.”
The most feared scrum in the history of rugby? 💣
— SuperSport Rugby (@SSRugby) October 24, 2023
Embedding tactical change
“The key part to this was getting the right relationship dynamics into the group, making us work as a team within a team. Part of that was understanding your mate, learning what made them tick as a person, their social lives, their family and their values – and being there to help them and to protect them,” Brits reflected.
“A great example of this was how we approached live scrummage training. In so many environments I’ve seen in rugby, you’ll see one-on-one battles at scrum time between teammates in training – where, let’s just say, one guy is measuring his manhood and taking others on to prove a point. This is not our way.
“Our way was to go as hard as we liked within legal boundaries but stay technical, stay legal because that is important when you’re being refereed out in the middle. But, if say, Ox Nche got the better of Frans Malherbe in one of those sessions, we’d encourage Frans to congratulate Ox, and then we would, as a group, talk openly about why that had happened, how to embed and repeat it in a match situation and also, from the defending prop’s position, how to prevent it happening in that same live game environment.
“It was learning without blame in an open culture, a scrum university if you like. That’s based upon a genuine desire to make each other be the best we could possibly be and to celebrate if one of our mates got one over on us. And we could do this because we left our egos in the dressing room and believed each and every one of us were world-class players who could be trusted within our group totally.”
Engine and wheels
“We also recognised that we were an eight-man team and that whilst we, the front-row, were the wheels, the locks and flanks were our engine, and if we didn’t get it right, we were letting their efforts down. We had to ‘do it for them’ and the huge energy that they were giving to us in front of them.
“I want to go back to that emotional piece about knowing and loving each other; if you can have an unbreakable emotional bond between each other, then that becomes almost a metaphor for the physical binding and support of each other on engagement and scrummaging.
“We refused to have our bond, whether physical or emotional, broken. When props or hookers go ‘mono on mono’ – that is to have one on one battles, then that’s when things go wrong. We recognised that, and we refused to get drawn into that situation – and we did that by communication, culture and teamwork.
“To illustrate this, England did so well against the Boks whilst Joe Marler and Dan Cole were on together with Jamie George. Those guys have that same emotional bond and philosophy that we have, and it showed on Saturday as they gave the Boks a real test, one I know that the boys both respected and embraced. Joe and Dan are world-class props, great technicians, but they are also best mates off the pitch, they know each other so well, and that showed in the way they stood up to the Springbok pack, and I salute them for that.
“Perhaps when they went off, a mistake by England, in my opinion, then the battles became more one-on-one and that changed the picture,” Brits observed.
“Our players simply love scrummaging, we are excited when we get the opportunity to show our set-piece, and we want the opposition to hate and fear the prospect of engaging against us.
“What you see with the Boks now is a team that know their scrum is a weapon and want to use it as much as possible. The ‘mark’ scrums are proof of that. Why kick out to touch when we believe we can force a penalty, kick further and still retain the throw? The belief is there, the evidence is there, so it’s a pretty simple call to use your armoury.
“I am not downplaying it when I say we want to be absolutely feared. We want our smiles of excitement on the next set-piece to be met with groans of frustration and sweats of trepidation as our opponents struggle to think about how they’re going to contain the next wave of power and the next front-row they face.
“It’s very much the case that we have two units of front-rows together in our side. We mix and match by who works best together – height is an important part of that, and our finishing front-row is lower and possibly less heavy than our starting front-row.
“This is key because when those guys come on, we are presenting a different technical challenge to our opponents, and it’s always interesting that one opposition prop might counter one of ours, but then when we bring on the change of challenge, that opponent might not be as able to deal with the second as they were the first – an absolute contrast of challenge.
“Another big part of our cultural change to get equality between our two units was changing the way our win bonuses were awarded. With two teams within a team, one starting and one finishing, the contributions are equal, and it doesn’t matter who starts and who finishes, so Rassie ensured that all bonuses were spread across the team equally, no matter how many minutes you played.”
4 – South Africa won four scrum penalties against England, the last time England conceded more scrum penalties in a single match was the 2019 final against the Springboks (5). Repeat.
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) October 24, 2023
“Our players are all so different. Steven Kitshoff, or ‘rooi gevaar’ (red danger) as we call him, is a power prop, a big, big intelligent scrummager, and he works so well with Frans Malherbe, another giant. Frans is such a laid-back man; he cares not a bit about skin fold tests or physical appearance; he’s happiest at home on his farm drinking a beer and eating a steak – an old school Bok prop if you like.
“Ox Nche and Vincent Koch are both real technicians, shorter than Kitzy and Frans, but so compact and tight that they work angles and heights as a unit better than any I know and against tired legs, the technical challenge they bring is absolutely devastating in the later stages,” Brits admired.
“And our hookers, I know Malcolm (Marx) has been missing, but he’s the world-class all-rounder and athlete, with Bongi Mbonambi the most aggressive hooker I’ve ever come across on pitch. He wants to dominate every scrum and would spend his life in the set-piece if he could.
“Finally, a word for Deon Fourie. This guy has done miracles as a back-up in Malcolm’s absence. He’ll play at lock, centre or prop if you ask him to; that’s how unselfish he is, and his contribution and the way he’s stepped up after the Marx injury just underlines what I said about relationships.
“I genuinely hope I’ve assisted in explaining the dynamics of our scrum. I cannot emphasise enough about how much our mental approach gives the edge. The embracing of each other as mates and the sheer desire to scrum are the keys to the excellence we see, and I am mighty proud of the time I spent as part of those amazing Springbok units during my career.”